Friday, March 30, 2012

Sam Harris's Science of Morality: A Case Study of Scientific Atheism

Sam Harris’s The End of Faith was perhaps the first major book in the wave of New Atheist books published after 911. Harris argued for the importance of challenging our so-called private beliefs, since beliefs (mental representations) cause our behaviour and thus have public consequences. He argued also that so-called moderate religion shouldn’t be off-limits to nontheists, since moderates enable more dangerous, fundamentalist religion by contending that since religion has a harmless form, religion itself is never a primary cause of violence. That book defended a commonsense realist philosophy, according to which beliefs are made true or false by the facts, and the facts support atheistic naturalism.

Whatever you might think of his earlier case for a certain philosophical perspective, you should be struck by the shift taken by his more recent book, The Moral Landscape, in which he attempts to show that social conflicts between groups who disagree on moral issues aren’t inevitable, because science has the potential to show us the truth about moral values just as science has done with regard to the rest of nature. Harris uses his case for a science of morality as a weapon against religion, since theists claim that religion (along with philosophy) are valuable in part for providing the only conceivable framework that justifies morality; that is, the theist means to bash science-centered nontheism for the latter’s inability to justify morality. In the process of countering this moral argument for theism, however, Harris throws the baby out with the bathwater. If morality is actually in the purview of science, then neither the philosopher nor the theologian can have anything crucial to say about moral issues, just as a chef or a politician has no authority to speak about biology or physics.

Unfortunately, Harris’s case for scientific morality conforms to the positivist’s pattern of ironically celebrating science with a philosophy that must be kept in the shadows. In Harris’s case, he should have two reasons not to call attention to the philosophical nature of his arguments for scientific morality. First, those arguments would demonstrate that there is a crucial philosophical debate about morality after all, namely the debate about whether morality can be scientifically justified; the nature of this meta-debate, in turn, prevents a fulsome, Scientistic worship of science at the expense of philosophy. Second, his arguments happen to be badly flawed, often resting on evasive verbal tricks or contradicting each other, due presumably to his contempt for philosophy and thus for its ideals of clarity and rigorous logic even in discussions of nonscientific issues. Harris’s case for scientific morality, therefore, illustrates the perils of scientific, as opposed to philosophical, atheism.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Untangling Scientific and Philosophical Atheism

New Atheism is riven by a seldom-discussed split between scientific and philosophical atheists, which reveals some surprising relationships between scientistic atheism, Socratic philosophical skepticism, and theism. In particular, each should be understood as a response to the mystical perception that the reality behind the apparent natural world is far from ideal for us. Western philosophers and Eastern mystics wrestle with this harsh truth and its implications, sacrificing their capacity for happiness in the process. Scientistic atheists pretend to reject all religions even as they belittle philosophical atheism to purify the membership of their science-centered cult. Scientism and literalistic, exoteric theism each represents a flight from the tragic implications of mysticism, and this is the chief weakness of each of these ideologies, according to the philosophical atheist who, unmoved by pragmatic social conventions, shares with the Eastern mystic the burden of suffering from a confrontation with the horrible truth of our existential predicament. In what follows, I explore these ideas with a view to clarifying the differences between scientific and philosophical atheism.

Some Recent Historical Context

The New Atheist movement began as a counterattack against Muslim fundamentalists who took the longstanding war between white American and European oligarchs, on the one hand, and the Muslim world, on the other, into the open with their 911 terrorism. (Moderate Muslims object that there’s nothing Islamic about the members of al Qaeda, but since theology isn’t a science, there’s no non-question-begging criterion for distinguishing between genuine and phony Muslims. The terrorist cherry-picks some passages from Muslim scriptures, taking them out of context, while the moderate, secularized or reformist Muslim does the same with other scriptures.) The war between secular civilizations and the Muslim hordes has been waged for decades via the secular oligarchs’ proxies, that is, by the West-friendly dictators who have--until the recent Arab Spring uprisings--kept a lid on the nationalist aspirations of the Muslim majorities in the Middle East. Secularists hardly need to enter an intellectual war of ideas with the still-medieval Islamic religion since, as Hitchens was fond of saying, the secularists already humiliate Middle Eastern Muslims daily by ruling them via the US military and its proxies. Still, New Atheists Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens took up the call for overkill, launching verbal assaults on theism with their books and in-person debates.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Untangling Liberalism and Libertarianism

Liberalism and libertarianism share a root word as well as a common history, but today liberals and libertarians are often far apart on economic and political issues, especially in the US. I’ll try to get to the bottom of the current divisions, giving due respect to the self-serving talking points repeated by each side, which is to say no respect at all to what partisan liberals and libertarians pretend to believe. I’m more interested in the principles that can be deduced from what such partisans say or that are indicated by their political actions. The principles I detect are rather shocking. As I’ve spelled out in Liberalism and elsewhere, modern liberals must be distinguished from postmodern ones, and postmodern liberals are disgraced, nihilistic servants of stealth oligarchies; moreover, as I’ve explained in Conservatism, libertarians craft noble lies on behalf of those same oligarchies. But in the present philosophical rant, I explore further the nature of those lies, to lay bare the current differences between liberalism and libertarianism.

The Ironic Undoing of Liberalism

Modern liberalism is a scientistic application of rationalism, which imports scientific methods and standards from the empirical study of nature to the management of society. By way of a decline from a modern to a so-called postmodern state, liberalism comes to bridge secular individualism and technocracy in the following way. Historically, the Protestant Reformation, the rise of the merchant class, and the power of modern scientific inquiries undermined the European feudalism, the authority of the Catholic Church, and thus the basis for deferring to Christian dogmas. Faith in received wisdom was replaced with the Renaissance confidence in human creativity and progress. The godlike human, who replaces the monotheistic deity by learning how the world actually works and re-engineering it to our benefit instead of trusting in any alleged divine revelation, and by freely creating cultures inherits the prestige and the rights once conventionally thought to belong to God.