Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Is Biology Natural? Now we believe biology produces morality, now we don't

I have long wondered what the connection was between the New Atheist ideology and their almost universal support for same-sex marriage in particular and, in general, their impatience with any position that views heterosexuality as normative.

There is a clear symmetry in biology between male and female. If anything goes together biologically, they do. And biology points to this in the strongest way it possibly could.

Now I don't believe that normativity has any necessary connection to biology or any other science. But the interesting thing is that they do. Or at least most of them.

You have a minority of New Atheists who take their materialist determinism to its logical conclusion, who claim that there is no free will and that consequently deny human responsibility (e.g., Alex Rosenberg, Sam Harris, etc.), but most of the New Atheists don't take their own scientistic beliefs to their logical conclusion and claim instead that morality somehow comes out of biological states.

Let's state that more strongly (because they do): Biology produces morality.

They don't have any good reason for believing this, mind you. When you ask them, they just produce some dreamy science mythology on the order of: "Well you see man in his early development began his development thus, and then he continued to develop this way and that, and then he became a moral creature--the "then" here being a conjunction masquerading as a logical therefore. They believe that somehow putting the arrival of the moral sense in a temporal sequence had some logically explanatory force, which, of course, it does not.

But for these latter atheists biology is the very thing that produced the normative. They believe this on every normative issue. Biology produces morality on ever issue ...

Except one: human sexuality.

When it comes to human sexuality, where the normatively-charged biology clearly points to the male and the female as being complementary, all of a sudden they mysteriously abandon the belief in the normative nature of biology.

Biology determines morality on every issue but this one. Morality arises from biology for everything but the reproductive organs which, as I have pointed out before, are no longer for reproduction because (and here they have a massive memory lapse about everything they have said about morality before this point) nothing is for anything.

Biology produces morality. Remember that. Except when we talk about sex. Then we need to completely forget it and pretend we never said it.

To say, as traditional peoples--including homosexuals themselves up until recent times--that homosexuality is "not natural" is now a laughable thing to say. It is as if biology were, oh, I don't know, natural.


23 comments:

Martin S. said...
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Martin S. said...
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Martin S. said...

New atheists are scared weird little guys. Deprived of the experience of free institutions they're quite easily lost to the gravity of black hole Leviathan. (where 'equalisation', shhh - equalisers are more equal than others, is Leviathan's public doctrine).

A complement to Martin's insight might be Patrick Deneen's latest at ABC religion and ethics - a way to help the young men, caught in gnuatheism-liberal statism, think their way out of the trap.

I like Davila's aphorisms, "The unbeliever is dumbfounded that his arguments do not alarm the Catholic, forgetting that the Catholic is a vanquished unbeliever.
His objections are the foundations of our faith."

"Whoever wants to know what the serious objections to Christianity are should ask us.
The unbeliever makes only stupid objections."

"Nothing is more dangerous for faith than to frequent the company of believers.
The unbeliever restores our faith."

Singring said...

Homosexuality is widespread in nature, so I don't know where you get this absurd notion that - even if atheists based morality exclusively on biology (which none that I know do) - homosexuality would be immoral from a natural perspective.

Yes, most atheists believe that 'morality comes from biological states', because they are materialists and therefore have no reason to assume that anything we do comes from anything other than our biological states.

But please give us the logical argument that shows a moral imperative x, y or z follows from this.

You also seem to be completely unaware of the large swathes of nature which are asexual or hermaphroditic, for example. Why not take our lead from them and all become bisexual, if you want us to follow biology as the moral rule?

Moreover, there is string biological evidence that homosexuality is genetically rooted to at least some extent - so it seems eminently reasonable (even if we were to take biology as normative!) to allow gay marriage, because some people are just naturally gay!

And we had this discussion about what organs are 'for' a while ago Martin...

You'll be shocked to find out that biologists still aren't swayed by your cutting 'intuition' on the morality of organ use based on you having 'looked at them.'

KyCobb said...

Martin,

You have said you have little interest in science, and it really shows when you comment on it. Biological structures weren't designed to perform a specific function, like a tool. They evolve and can change functions or serve multiple functions. Jaw bones of reptiles evolved into the inner ear bones of mammals. Bonobos, one of our closest living relatives, use promiscuous sex regardless of gender for social bonding; nothing immoral about it.

Martin S. said...

I just happened upon this http://agentintellect.blogspot.com.au/2013/05/i-need-to-read-this.html very recent paper on natural teleology, which as Feser and Nagel show is really the only way to ground the project of science (and reason and thought itself.)

A boost for those with that unarticulated sense of being in a decaying orbit around the atheism/statism singularity I mentioned above.

Thomas said...

Singring,

Do you think that opposition to homosexuality is biologically grounded?

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

... even if atheists based morality exclusively on biology (which none that I know do)...

Ever heard of Edward O. Wilson? How about sociobiology?

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

But please give us the logical argument that shows a moral imperative x, y or z follows from this.

Why are you asking me this question? Did you read the post?

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

You also seem to be completely unaware of the large swathes of nature which are asexual or hermaphroditic, for example.

So you can say that "large swathes" of nature are "asexual" but I can't say that one species is heterosexual?

Is that how this works?

Martin Cothran said...

KyCobb,

You have said you have little interest in science ...

When did I say this? I have a lot of posts on the subject of science. I am obviously very interested in it.

Martin Cothran said...

KyCobb,

Biological structures weren't designed to perform a specific function, like a tool. They evolve and can change functions or serve multiple functions.

You obviously completely missed the point of my post, which is that New Atheist apply a completely different standard to sexual morality than other kinds of morality.

What does your comment have to do with this point?

Singring said...

Thomas:

'Do you think that opposition to homosexuality is biologically grounded?'

That's a very vague question. If you mean 'biologically grounded' in the sense that anything we do as humans is biologically grounded (I'm a materialist, after all), then yes - it is biologically grounded.

If you mean 'biologically grounded' in the sense that it makes coherent and consistent use of good biology to support moral positions, then no - I don't think it's 'biologically grounded'.

'Ever heard of Edward O. Wilson? How about sociobiology?'

I have reas some of Wilson's biological writings, but have never heard about or read of his morals. So I don't know what they are. I'm a bit worried you misunderstand 'sociobiology', though, Martin. Just because someone think that sociobiology gives rises to moral behaviour does not mean they derive moral imperatives from brute biological facts. Dawkins is a staunch Darwinist but explicitly states that he thinks using Darwinian mechnisms as a basis for morality is a bad idea.

So I highly doubt Wilson bases his moral imperatives exclusively on biology. Can you point me to any of his writings where he does so?

'So you can say that "large swathes" of nature are "asexual" but I can't say that one species is heterosexual? '

You can say anything you like, Martin - it just has to make sense. It has to be supported by evidence and reason.

It should be painfully obvious that humans are *not* exclusively heterosexual. The fact that you are talking about the issue of human homosexuals marrying might have given you a clue here?

There are many biological species where we either have a) strong evidence that they reproduce exclusively asexually or b) have so far found no evidence that they reproduce sexually.

This is evidence-based stuff, Martin, so unless you want to quibble with it, I get to say it.

If you want to go out and say 'humans are heterosexual' and use that as an argument to support your notion of what marriage should be, please, be my guest. The more horrible arguments like this come from your side, the better our side looks.

'Why are you asking me this question? Did you read the post?'

I'm asking you this question becuase you are alledging that atheists are being inconsistent in their view of nature and morality. So I'm asking you to tell us exactly where that inconsistency lies.

I would have thought that to be rather uncontroversial, but it seems I forgot your allergy to answering direct questions.

Lee said...

> Bonobos, one of our closest living relatives, use promiscuous sex regardless of gender for social bonding; nothing immoral about it.

Is extinction immoral?

Lee said...

Is it natural for animals to ostracize other animals they perceive to be different?

Lee said...

It seems to me that any morality based on biology is missing an 'ought'. It could possibly explain why animals, including humans, behave a certain way. It could explain why behaving a certain way better equips the species for survival.

What biology can't appear to do, at least to my philosophically *and* biologically untrained mind, is explain why a behavior is good or bad from a moral perspective. All it can show is that individual creature A behaves different from the norm, not whether the behavior is right or wrong.

Biology could also illustrate that a behavior helps or hurts the species' chances of survival (though such an argument might more easily be made in hindsight). But it can't tell us why extinction is bad.

It can't even tell us why death is bad, since when one thing dies, many other things get to nourish themselves on the carcass.

Humans observe in other species with detachment behaviors that they would condemn as immoral in other humans. When lions or chimps kill each other in territorial disputes, the behavior isn't called evil, it's just what lions and chimps do.

So it seems to me that, if we're discussing biological morality, we need simply to understand:

1. When humans act in certain ways, they're just doing what humans do.

2. Since they're just doing what humans do, there's no right or wrong, it just is.

3. If a behavior renders us extinct, that's okay, worms and buzzards have to eat too.

4. But none of this means there aren't behaviors that we like and don't like.

E.g., if gay men like being with other men, that's natural.

But that's a two-edged sword: if straight men don't like gay men's behavior, that's natural too.

It all boils down to what we like and what we don't like. But to get others to take our likes and dislikes seriously, we have to give them more dignified clothing. Thus, if I'm trying to convince someone to like what I like, I'm going introduce a new concept: morality. I don't like what you're doing: that's immoral. Do what I do: that's moral.

If morality is biological, that's the world we live in.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring:

http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/98apr/biomoral.htm. I would also recommend Wilson's book, Consilience.

Singring said...
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Singring said...
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Singring said...

Thanks for those links, Martin. It appears 'Consilience' is available quite cheaply on Amazon, so I will definitely be reading it - thanks for the recommendation.

Thanks also for the article. It seems to be a condensation of Wilson's thoughts on morality as expressed in the book, so let's look at what Wilson says:

'Because the success of an ethical code depends on how wisely it interprets moral sentiments, those who frame one should know how the brain works, and how the mind develops. The success of ethics also depends on how accurately a society can predict the consequences of particular actions as opposed to others, especially in cases of moral ambiguity.'

and...

'In the empiricist view, ethics is conduct favored consistently enough throughout a society to be expressed as a code of principles. It reaches its precise form in each culture according to historical circumstance.'

This sounds very familiar to me and I agree with Wilson's empiricist view of Utilitarian morality with consequences weighed on empirical evidence. This is (usually) the codified morality in human societies throughout history.

However, please note that nowhere in this article does Wilson state that societies should be basing moral rules on brute biological facts. He is not saying we should be deriving an ought from the is, but that the is (our biology) helps us understand why we tend to choose certain 'oughts'.

He says this explicitly here:

'For if ought is not is, what is? To translate is into ought makes sense if we attend to the objective meaning of ethical precepts. They are very unlikely to be ethereal messages awaiting revelation, or independent truths vibrating in a nonmaterial dimension of the mind. They are more likely to be products of the brain and the culture. From the consilient perspective of the natural sciences, they are no more than principles of the social contract hardened into rules and dictates -- the behavioral codes that members of a society fervently wish others to follow and are themselves willing to accept for the common good.'

So, all he is saying (as I suspected) is that if we understand human biology fully, we will understand the origin of moral behaviour.

I quote:

'The same evidence, I believe, favors a purely material origin [not imperative!] of ethics, and it meets the criterion of consilience: causal explanations of brain activity and evolution, while imperfect, already cover most facts known about behavior we term "moral." Although this conception is relativistic (in other words, dependent on personal viewpoint), it can, if evolved carefully, lead more directly and safely to stable moral codes than can transcendentalism, which is also, when one thinks about it, ultimately relativistic.'

You see, Wilson here even expressly states that this origin of morality is relativistic, though will typically be shared by a large number of members in society.

To sum up:

'The empiricist view concedes that moral codes are devised to conform to some drives of human nature and to suppress others. Ought is the translation not of human nature but of the public will, which can be made increasingly wise and stable through an understanding of the needs and pitfalls of human nature.'

Clearly, your characterization of an inconsistency in the moral behaviour of Wilson or other secularist/empiricist naturalists is not correct.

Because we are not arguing that moral code should be based on biological facts (only that it can be explained by it!), there is no inconsistency in permitting homosexuals to do whatever they like, so long as it doesn't harm anybody.

The interesting question for empiricists is: how does homosexual (and heterosexual!) behaviour originate and how do the moral codes we develop as a society originate, based on our biology?

Lee said...

> "To translate is into ought makes sense if we attend to the objective meaning of ethical precepts. They are very unlikely to be ethereal messages awaiting revelation, or independent truths vibrating in a nonmaterial dimension of the mind. They are more likely to be products of the brain and the culture. From the consilient perspective of the natural sciences, they are no more than principles of the social contract hardened into rules and dictates -- the behavioral codes that members of a society fervently wish others to follow and are themselves willing to accept for the common good.'"

We have no need of this 'ethical precepts' hypothesis. What 'social contract'? Did anyone ever sign one? I've never even seen one.

It can't be observed and it can't be tested. We're just animals, doing what animals do. Somehow, as animals, we acquired the conceit that our likes and dislikes had achieve some sort of transcendent quality. Perhaps that conceit helped us to survive and so was reinforced by evolution. But that doesn't make it true.

If the first order of the enlightened thinker is to accept what can only be proven, then we need to rid ourselves of these conceits.

But apparently it's in our DNA to believe there is such a thing as right and wrong and social contracts and that it actually means something. A lot of the rubes believe that. Of course, we can see through all that hocus pocus, no need for people like us to do much more than wink knowingly at each other when the rubes talk like that.

Lee said...

> The empiricist view concedes that moral codes are devised to conform to some drives of human nature and to suppress others. Ought is the translation not of human nature but of the public will, which can be made increasingly wise and stable through an understanding of the needs and pitfalls of human nature.'

The public will in Nazi Germany was to exterminate Jews. The public will in the U.S. in 1941 was to tear Nazi Germany down. It's hard to discern an 'ought' from that sort of juxtaposition. Public wills often disagree with each other. How to tell which one is right? We can't. That would require an 'ought' that stands above the public will of both countries. And since we can't prove that such an ought exists, therefore, it does not exist.

Easier simply to say, people like to kill each other and believe they are right to do so. We have no need of this 'ought' hypothesis.

Lee said...

> 'Ought is the translation not of human nature but of the public will, which can be made increasingly wise and stable through an understanding of the needs and pitfalls of human nature.'

The public will has no meaasure of "wise and stable" if there is nothing higher than the public will by which to judge its results.