Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Atheism's Imaginary Triumphalism

Queens, New York City
I like Ross Douthat's (of the New York Times, and Bad Religion) article "The Confidence of Jerry Coyne." Coyne is an atheist who recently took on Douthat, after Douthat pointed out an inconsistency and incoherence that is intrinsic to Coyne's atheism.

Coyne's atheism concludes that:

  • the universe is purposeless
  • the universe is purely physical
  • human life is accidental (following from the universe as non-telic); i.e., there's not some "reason" why you and I are here
  • human history is directionless
  • human consciousness is probably an illusion (if all that exists is only physical, then of course there is no non-physical "consciousness"
On this I agree with Coyne. I'm no atheist. But were I one I would conclude the above (following Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, et. al. ad infinitum). Call Coyne's view "secular naturalism" (or "godless physicalism"). So far, so good.

But...  Coyne moralizes. Douthat reasons that Coyne's atheism "is at odds with its general political and moral posture."  "the materialist’s purposeless cosmos poses some problems for the [atheist] view of moral and political purpose in human affairs." Note what Coyne writes:

"Cosmology doesn’t give one iota of evidence for a purpose (it could!) or for God. Most of the universe is cold, bleak, airless, and uninhabitable."

Coyne again:

"Yes, secularism does propose a physical and purposeless universe, and many (but not all) of us accept the notion that our sense of self is a neuronal illusion."

According to Coyne's atheism, the "self" is but a "neuronal illusion." Again, if atheism is true, then this follows. (See, e.g., atheist philosopher Owen Flanagan's The Problem With the Soul, or Daniel Dennett's Conscioujsness Explained.)

OK. But then Coyne says this:

"[A]lthough the universe is purposeless, our lives aren’t. This conflation of a purposeless universe (i.e., one not created by a transcendent being for a specific reason) with purposeless human lives is a trick that the faithful use to make atheism seem dark and nihilistic. But we make our own purposes, and they’re real."

At this point the worldview of atheism has a problem. Coyne claims:

  1. The self is a neuronal illusion.
  2. We make our own purposes. 

Hold on... this is logical nonsense! Douthat rightly responds:

"[I]f under materialist premises the actual agent is quite possibly a fiction, then who exactly is this I who “reads” and “learns” and “teaches,” and why in the universe’s name should my illusory self believe Coyne’s bold proclamation that his illusory self’s purposes are somehow “real” and worthy of devotion and pursuit? (Let alone that they’re morally significant: But more on that below.) Prometheus cannot be at once unbound and unreal; the human will cannot be simultaneously triumphant and imaginary."

Watch Coyne, in his response to Douthat, moralize. Here's Coyne on the altruistic morals of an atheistic materialist:

"As for where altruism comes from, who knows? My own suspicions are that it’s partly genetic and partly cultural, but what’s important is that we feel it and can justify it. I can justify it on several grounds, including that altruism makes for a more harmonious society, helps those in need, and, as a selfish motive, that being altruistic gains you more respect. None of this justification has anything to do with God."

Coyne is an eliminative materialist. (That is, all reality is reducible to material/physical reality). Coyne doesn't seem to grasp the consequences of this, which include: "moralistic altruism" and moralizing against religion are themselves illusionary, on atheism-as-eliminative-materialism. 

Douthat observes:

"[I]f the only real thing is matter in motion, and the only legitimate method of discernment the scientific method, you’ll never get to an absolute “thou shalt not murder” (or “thou shalt risk your life on behalf of your Jewish neighbor”) now matter how cleverly you think and argue."

As even the atheist Thomas Nagel knows. And herein lies but one reason why I don't have enough faith to be an atheist.