Thursday, October 06, 2011

On Atheism There Is No Ground for Ethics

Monroe County Community College

Atheism is, I think, logically committed to physicalism. There are atheists who agree with this. One is Duke philosophy professor Alex Rosenberg. (See "In praise of nice nihilism: Alex Rosenberg discusses his new book on atheism.") On Rosenberg's atheism all questions are answered on the basis of science. So...

Is there a purpose to the universe? No.

Does life have meaning? No.

Why are we here? "Just dumb luck.

Here's Rosenberg on moral values. “What about human values, what about ethics, what about our core morality? I try to explain why it is that the “new atheists,” like Sam Harris and [Daniel] Dennett and, to some extent, Dawkins think they can ground ethics on science, and they really can’t. That means you can't really ground ethics on anything at all."

On this Rosenberg speaks truth. You cannot derive "ought" from "is." In spite of Sam Harris's mighty efforts to do so.

It strikes me as odd, then, when he says his book is about what atheists "should believe." Those are prescriptive-ethical words. So I alwys find it strange when atheists counsel what others "should" do or "ought to do" while admitting (logically) that on atheism one can't ground ethics on anything at all.

Rosenberg says atheists ought to develop a "nice nihilism." Why? Because "most people are cooperative, agreeable, moral, law-abiding people and we don’t need any further justification. It's, so to speak, in our genes. We were built that way and our species never would have survived on the bottom of the food chain on the African savannah a million years ago unless we figured out how to cooperate, and that’s basically the cause of our moral core, [the one] that everyone accepts. To look for something more by way of justification is a mistake."

But if niceness is "in our genes," why counsel us to be nice? Isn't that a bit like counseling someone who is 5'10" to be 5'10"?

Further, Rosenberg says that, on physicalism, "consciousness" and "free will" are illusions. I agree that this follows from physicalism (noting that there are "compatibilists" who try to argue that free will is compatible with physicalism). But how one could ever knowe this or argue for it remains a great mystery to me. Because...

1. If biological determinism is true, then persons don't have free will.
2. If persons don't have free will, then persons are not responsible for their theories in support of biological determinism.
3. Therefore, if biological determinism is true then persons are not responsible for their theories of biological determinism.

Rosenberg says:

"Consciousness is extremely misleading. Most of the chapters are about neuroscience and theories, experiments in neuroscience that show that our belief in free will is an illusion, that our belief in a continuing identical self over a lifetime is an illusion, that we get the nature of cognitive thought fundamentally wrong, and when we do we’re susceptible to the narratives of religion. A good chunk of the book is an attempt to explain what contemporary Nobel Prize-winning neuroscience tells us about the mind and telling us the truth about the mind dispels most of the illusions that make religious belief [exciting.]"

Well, I think this theory dispels a lot more than religious beliefs. Surely, if true, it dispels all beliefs.

Finally, I find Rosenberg's claim that "science doesn't come with a narrative" false. But that's another story.

(Rosenberg's new book, in which he rises above his genetic determinism (or predispositions) and exhorts his fellow atheists to be nice nihilists because it's in their genes, is The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions.)