Monday, September 10, 2012

The intellectual de-evolution of Jerry Coyne

I think we've discovered the problem with the New Atheists: they have jettisoned rationality altogether.

Here is the philosophically-challenged New Atheist biologist Jerry Coyne on his recent conversion to the position of the even more philosophically-challenged New Atheist Sam Harris that morality has a "scientific basis":
Now, however, I’m coming around to Sam’s view. People’s view of what is “moral” ultimately must rest on one or more of three things: an appeal to the consequences, an appeal to some authority (like Scripture), or some innate feeling instilled by our genes in combination with our environment (in other words, morality lies in our neurons).
That Coyne's position would be deteriorating to the point of thinking that Sam Harris' view of morality actually makes any sense, is an indication of just how low the intellectual standards of the New Atheists have become.

Note the one glaring omission from this list of the three things Coyne says morality can rest upon. Guessed it yet?

Reason.

This is rather ironic, since the New Atheists (despite their almost complete lack of knowledge of actual logic) are always claiming they are the rational ones, and their religious opponents rely exclusively on faith.

20 comments:

Thesauros said...

that's because Determinism has nothing to do with reason or morality.

Thesauros said...

that's because Determinism has nothing to do with reason or morality.

ZPenn said...

I've now read The Baggini Krauss debate, (which was very interesting), and the response by Coyne. I'm not entirely sure why Coyne has come to the conclusion that

"In the end, then, it is possible, though not yet feasible, for science to determine what is moral, simply by investigating the neurological and evolutionary bases of our value judgments."

Because this implies that our personal value judgements are somehow a standard by which we can judge things scientifically. Being that people have such differing worldviews, and many of them contradict the views of others, there would be no scientific means of determining which person has the "right" value judgements. And this doesn't even tough on the question of whether objective morality exists at all. I'm not convinced that it does.

I am of the opinion that objective morality is outside of the realm of science entirely. Subjective morality can be informed by science as was brought up by Krauss and Baggini, but there is no was to empirically determine what is absolutely "right" or "wrong" in terms of morality, as seems to have been suggested by Coyne. I really like Coyne, and think he's got a lot of interesting things to say, but I'm going to have to disagree with him on this one.

I do agree with him, though, the Krauss/ Baggini debate was one of the more interesting reads of the week.

ozarklatinist said...

How, though, does one base morality on "reason"?

Martin Cothran said...

Ozarklatinist:

This is what virtue ethics (i.e., classical or Aristotelian-Thomistic ethics) is all about.

Under this view there are formal and final causes that constitute what we are and why we're here. We can know them. Morality is simply acting in accord with the nature and purpose that is inherent in us--and acting in violation of it is immoral.

You don't have a fact/value distinction problem in the classical view that is so much a problem in the nominalist view of man that stems from William of Ockham, since intrinsic nature (our formal cause) and an intrinsic telos (our final cause) are actual facts. There's no fact/value divide to bridge.

Singring said...

'We can know them. '

Now that's a bold claim.

How can we 'know' them, Martin.

Last time I asked you for a good reason to think that final or formal causes are a parsimonious explanation that account for, say, the growth of an acorn into a tree, I got no response.

Now, since you make such a definitive statement, I wonder if I might be a bit more lucky at getting one.

So what is the 'telos' of man and how do we 'know' it is a 'fact'?

ozarklatinist said...

Mr. Cothran,

If we take Alasdair MacIntyre as our paradigm case of modern virtue-ethics, it would seem there are substantial difficulties in knowing a telos. MacIntyre, after all, does not argue that we know them by deduction or induction, but rather that we are inculcated into a telos by a tradition and by cultural practices (which I agree with him on, and I think his analysis of the modern "teloi" of the roles of manager, aesthete and therapist are spot-on).

This would actually fall into the category of authority: we are told our telos by an authority like the Church, our parents or our teachers (including our science teachers, Singring, since the role of "scientist" requires a certain conception of our telos and an inculcation into certain cultural practices), and are formed accordingly.

Where I think MacIntyre is weak is in showing how we can know rationally that one tradition is better than another in this respect. You were raised to be a Christian gentleman and that fellow over there was raised to be a Zulu warrior: you both have a very definite conception of your telos, one that is a cultural "fact" you have been initiated into by certain practices and norms, but it's unclear how yours is any more valid than his or vice versa.

In one of MacIntyre's books he tried to make an Aristotelian detour in explaining how our telos can be known empirically (Dependent Rational Animals), but my understanding is that he has stepped back from that claim now. I simply do not see how it can be done.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring & Ozarklatinist (Only I could achieve the feat of putting you both on the same side of an issue like this):

Generally speaking, the telos is happiness.

Aristotle says this because it is the one end in relation to which every other human end is a means. All other ends are proximate; only happiness is ultimate. Unlike any other proximate end, we don't desire happiness as a means to any other end.

Happiness is the perfection of the human soul.

The question then becomes what actions lead to the perfection of the soul (i.e., lead to human happiness), and the answer to that takes account of the two major divisions of the human soul, the intellect, and the passions, each of which has its perfection.
Happiness is achieved through the virtues--intellectual, moral, and theological.

The intellectual virtues are ordered to truth, the perfection of the intellect. The intellectual virtues are art and prudence. The moral virtues are ordered to the perfection of the appetite. The moral virtues are justice, temperance, and fortitude. The intellectual and moral virtues are natural virtues and can be known naturally, as they were by the virtuous pagans.

The theological virtues, however, are the supernatural perfection of the other, natural virtues, since by purely natural means . They are not natural and cannot be discovered naturally, but are infused supernaturally and revealed through divine revelation.

We know the natural virtues both empirically--because our experience tells us that people in fact are happier when they practice them and because we can look at cultures throughout history and see the consistent acknowledgement of them (see C. S. Lewis’s “tao”)—and rationally because, through human reason, we can determine what they are (as the philosophical tradition shows).

As for the supernatural virtues, although they cannot be discovered naturally, they can be understood by and subjected to reason once they are revealed (as the theological tradition shows).

There. Chew on that.

Singring said...

'Generally speaking, the telos is happiness. Aristotle says this because it is the one end in relation to which every other human end is a means.'

I can agree with that. But my question was how we can *know* what the telos is.

How is Aristotle's moral system of 'morally good acts are those that make us happy' any more or less subjective than a utilitarian moral system that states 'morally goood acts are those that minimize the overall amount of harm (unhappiness) in the world.'

Why do you consider one absolute and objective (as you seem to claim when you say that we can 'know' its premise) and the other one that you dismiss at the bat of an eyelid as being nothing more than 'feelings'?

Is happiness not a feeling or what?

'Happiness is achieved through the virtues--intellectual, moral, and theological. '

Says who?

What makes person A happy will be completely different from what makes person B happy. A lot of atheists are perfectly happy without ever practicing any theological virtues.

'We know the natural virtues both empirically--because our experience tells us that people in fact are happier when they practice them...'

You know what empirically makes a lot of gay people really, really happy?

Practicing lots of gay sex.

So why is that a no-no in the telic morality you adopt?

What's the logic there?

Or is it exclusively you (and maybe Aristotle and McIntyre) who gets to tell everyone what makes them happy and what doesn't?

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

How is Aristotle's moral system of 'morally good acts are those that make us happy' any more or less subjective than a utilitarian moral system that states 'morally goood acts are those that minimize the overall amount of harm (unhappiness) in the world.'

I never said utilitarianism was "subjective"; It's just arbitrary. It does not move any individual toward his telos. It is an abstract theory of ethics which no basis in anything other than an abstract view of happiness that cannot be found in any individual.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

Why do you consider one absolute and objective (as you seem to claim when you say that we can 'know' its premise) and the other one that you dismiss at the bat of an eyelid as being nothing more than 'feelings'?

Again, I never said utilitarianism was based on feelings. Utilitarian is an abstract rationalist doctrine.

But I accept the former and reject the latter because the latter is arbitrary and the former is based on the experience of the human race and my own personal experience. Humans are happier when they practice the virtues than when they don't.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

What makes person A happy will be completely different from what makes person B happy.

How do you know this? Besides I think you are mistaking happiness for pleasure.

ozarklatinist said...

Defining our telos as Aristotelian happiness is in a sense circular, since Aristotle's "eudaimonia," quite distinctly from the common sense of the word happiness, has the primary meaning of a fulfilled life -- i.e., a life spent fulfilling its telos. But the question remains, what telos?

Granted, fulfilling any sort of telos is going to involve developing certain habits, and we can call those habits "virtues" if we wish. Nevertheless, the eudaimonia of a Zulu warrior or a Homeric aristocrat is going to look a lot different than that of a Christian patriarch. Virtues will be required, but they will be different virtues. Try explaining to the Roman patrician that a part of his telos involves developing the habit of humility!

So we are still left with the insoluble problem of how to evaluate different traditions' accounts of the telos of a human being and the habits requisite to fulfill that telos. Singring is right to point out that the telos of a modern pluralist is going to look still different. If man's telos is tolerance and self-expression (odious as that modern tradition may be), then perverts are being obstructed from their pursuit of eudaimonia if they are forbidden from their preferred carnal configuration.

Martin Cothran said...

Ozarklatinist,

Nevertheless, the eudaimonia of a Zulu warrior or a Homeric aristocrat is going to look a lot different than that of a Christian patriarch. Virtues will be required, but they will be different virtues.

I think you are confusing different views of what a human telos is with a difference of telos in reality.

There may be different views of what constitutes this telos (in fact, we know there is). But it does not follow from the fact that there are different opinions of what the telos is that there are different teloi from culture to culture.

Nor does it follow from the existence of different opinions that it doesn't exist.

Plurality of opinion does not imply relativism of reality.

ozarklatinist said...

Mr. Cothran,

We agree that plurality does not equal relativity. But that mere fact brings us no closer to having a criterion (much less a deductive or inductive criterion) for evaluating teloi. I believe the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, but I take that telos on authority, not deduction.

Martin Cothran said...

Ozarklatinist,

I agree with you that as Christians we take the telos on authority, although the reasons for believing that authority are not irrational, nor are the creeds and confessions upon which that telos is based completely independent of some rational hermeneutics.

But there is still the matter of whether much of what constitutes the telos can be known outside the direct authority of the Church.

Do you believe the cardinal virtues can be known through human reason, apart from revelation?

Singring said...

'I never said utilitarianism was "subjective"; It's just arbitrary. It does not move any individual toward his telos.'

More arbitrary than what you or Aristotle decree as being the 'telos' (happiness)?

Ho can a moral system that has its imperative the minimization of harm (or, reversely, the maximization of happiness, if you will) possibly *not* lead people to happiness? This claim strikes me as absurd.

' It is an abstract theory of ethics which no basis in anything other than an abstract view of happiness that cannot be found in any individual.'

This is a nice assertion, but say for example that minimizing the amount of harm in the world via my moral actions makes me happy? How is that abstract - utilitarian morality makes me happy - therefore it move me toward my telos - therefore it is virtuous?

The sheer fact that I can happily plug in anything that would make person X happy as something that moves them toward their telos and is therefore morally right perfectly illustrates why this idea of morality is just as arbitrary as any other.

Moreover, I could just claim that the actual telos is...I don't know...eating cupcakes. Everything else is subjugate to that purpose. How is that any more arbitrary than saying 'happiness' is the telos?

'Again, I never said utilitarianism was based on feelings.'

Then why do you repeatedly dismiss my morality - which I have expressly laid out as being utilitarian, often to excruciating lengths - as being based merely on 'feelings' and therefore to be completely disregarded?

'But I accept the former and reject the latter because the latter is arbitrary and the former is based on the experience of the human race and my own personal experience.'

Are you honestly going to suggest that human harm and the desire of the vast majority of people to avoid it is *not* based on the experience of the human race and my (and your) personal experience?

'How do you know this?'

How do I know it? Because people tell me so! Ask 100 different people what they would define as their idea of perfect happiness and you will not get two identical answers.

'Besides I think you are mistaking happiness for pleasure.'

Oh please....so when two gay folks walk up to you and say: 'Mr Cothran, please listen carefully and read our lips: Getting married to each other and having lots of gay sex is what would make us perfectly happy!' - you would then lecture them that what they are talking about is 'pleasure' and not 'happiness' because...because...what, because you say so? Because Aristotle says so? Because *who* says so? And with what justification?

Who made you the arbiter of what is to be considered 'pleasure' and what is to be considered 'happiness'?


ozarklatinist said...

Mr. Cothran,

"Do you believe the cardinal virtues can be known through human reason, apart from revelation?"

I'm not certain, but another question from a specifically Christian perspective is whether the four cardinal virtues are even virtues if they are not redeemed and perfected by grace and charity. Paul has a pretty long list of seemingly virtuous things in 1 Corinthians 13 but says all of them are worthless unless they are joined with a love that can only come through grace. I suspect without that the so-called virtues are exactly as Augustine described them -- "splendida vitia," or sparkling vices.

ozarklatinist said...

In looking up that Augustine citation I discovered that the "splendida vitia" phrasing is apocryphal, but he did say that without grace the virtues of the peoples (gentium) were "vitia potius quam virtutes."

Martin Cothran said...

Ozarklatinist,

I suspect that when Augustine said that what he meant was that these virtues can function as vices for someone who does not have a broader worldview within which they can operation properly. Chesterton makes the same point in Orthodoxy.

However, because they can operate this way does not mean that they are not virtues, only that the virtues need a broader context within which they can do their good work.

Furthermore, we know that they can be known through human reason, apart from revelation because, in fact, they were.