Sunday, 28 June 2009

Modern Morals



A brief comment on this article by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in The Times. He claims we have come to believe there is no right and wrong, and cites the recent MP expense scandal:
In the case of MPs and financial institutions whole groups of people were, in effect, saying: “It’s legal, therefore it’s moral. Besides which, everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn’t I?” This was not a failure of individuals but of an entire culture, whose air we all breathe, and for which all of us share responsibility.
The failure of these groups certainly tells us something about the society they move in, but I've also been encouraged by the reaction, which contradicts Sacks's point; almost everyone has been disgusted by the behaviour of the great and the good. That to me is a sign that the general public do clearly know the difference between right and wrong; I also believe the people involved mostly know the difference. Moral law is not binding like physical law; people can break them whilst knowing what's right or wrong. He goes on:
So, in place of an inner code, we have regulatory authorities. Where once people believed that God sees all we do, now we have CCTV and video surveillance. When self-imposed restraint disappears, external constraint must take its place. The result is that we have created the most regulated, intrusive society ever known.
and
An inner-directed society is one where people have an internalised sense of right and wrong. An other-directed society is one in which people take their cues from what other people do. Only in the latter can you have a situation in which people say: “If everyone else is doing it, it can’t be wrong.”
He seems to be arguing against an absolute morality here - an odd position for a theist. But he also seems to have a rather utopian bent. Whilst morality has been negotiated anew with each generation, and the moral zeitgeist has been re-established, all civilised society is characterised by law-making that recognises much of the ruling morality. This is a tacit admission that these laws aren't enshrined anywhere else, and require human enforcement.

The second was the English philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, who argued that morality had become incoherent because we had lost the foundation on which it was built. Words like obligation and ought belonged to a culture in which people believed that there was such a thing as a divine law: the belief shared by Jews, the Greek Stoics and Christians. Lose this and the words themselves lose their meaning. It is, she said, as if the word criminal remained when the criminal law had been abolished and forgotten.
This strikes me as nonsense; no-one has ever established how a divine law gives our human morality a 'foundation'. It's simple assertion; one could just as well ask what gives divine law its foundation? Introducing the god concept is just not helpful.
If this is true, we face a much larger crisis than we think. Parliamentary reform and financial re-regulation will treat the symptoms not the cause. Without conscience there can be no trust. Without a shared moral code there can be no free society. Either we recover the moral sense or we will find, too late, that in the name of liberty, we have lost our freedom.
This I can agree with. But as always it's the secular that will give us access to a shared moral code that can work; if we look to the multifarious religious codes available, we must fail - they are incompatible with each other.

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Sunday, 21 June 2009

An Agnostic's Apology



I recently read An Agnostic's Apology, by Leslie Stephen, which presents a splendid analysis of why a reasonable person should be agnostic. To be agnostic is also to be atheist, of course, so I tend to use the terms interchangeably.

Towards the end he says:
Why, when no honest man will deny in private that every ultimate problem is wrapped in the profoundest mystery, do honest men proclaim in pulpits that unhesitating certainty is the duty of the most foolish and ignorant? Is it not a spectacle to make the angels laugh? We are a company of ignorant beings, feeling our way through mists and darkness, learning only by incessantly repeated blunders, obtaining a glimmering of truth by falling into every conceivable error, dimly discerning light enough for our daily needs, but hopelessly differing whenever we attempt to describe the ultimate origin or end of our paths; and yet, when one of us ventures to declare that we don't know the map of the universe as well as the map of our infinitesimal parish, he is hooted, reviled, and perhaps told that he will be damned to all eternity for his faithlessness.
I've often written along similar lines myself, only a lot less elegantly :-).

I've been trying to analyse the concept of doubt in recent blog posts, and how that relates to faith. Certainly some theists admit to some doubt, although many don't, and *my* interpretation of faith is one of banishing doubt and committing to an unjustified belief. Others claim they have access to some universal 'truth'.

The splendid last paragraph of Stephen's 1893 essay says, in response to the convictionalist challenge to "Stick to the words which profess to explain everything; call your doubts mysteries, and they won't disturb you any longer; and believe in those necessary truths of which no two philosophers have ever succeeded in giving the same version."

Gentlemen, we can only reply, wait till you have some show of agreement amongst yourselves. Wait till you can give some answer not palpably a verbal answer, to some one of the doubts which oppress us as they oppress you. Wait till you can point to some single truth, however trifling, which has been discovered by your method, and will stand the test of discussion and verification. Wait till you can appeal to reason without in the same breath vilifying reason. Wait till your Divine revelations have something more to reveal than the hope that the hideous doubts which they suggest may possibly be without foundation. Till then we shall be content to admit openly, what you whisper under your breath or hide in technical jargon, that the ancient secret is a secret still; that man knows nothing of the Infinite and Absolute; and that, knowing nothing, he had better not be dogmatic about his ignorance. And, meanwhile, we will endeavour to be as charitable as possible, and whilst you trumpet forth officially your contempt for our skepticism, we will at least try to believe that you are imposed upon by your own bluster.
This could have been written today in response to the Stanley Fishes and Terry Eagletons of this world.


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Friday, 12 June 2009

Anti-Censorship Post





In the interests of free speech, I'm mirroring this video by DonExodus2 that was pulled down due to a DMCA complaint on Youtube. See this article at Pharyngula for details.


video

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Sunday, 7 June 2009

Alister McGrath's System of Belief



A common accusation levelled at the faithless is that they are just as much prisoners of faith as the 'faithful'; this charge can come from believers and the patronising non-believer 'post-modern' type of thinker alike. There's a good reason for doing this - it's to allow the apologist to create a straw man for them to attack in contrast to their own worldview. The unpalatable alternative is that they must positively defend the truth of their worldview; which is often indefensible. So it's a *deflection* strategy, when one has run out of arguments, and a tu quoque fallacy to boot.

A good example is this article, in The Times, by Alister McGrath, a softly spoken master of the non-statement. He starts by comparing the anti-apartheid ANC to atheism, pointing out the difficulties the ANC is having to create a *positive* identity for itself. He then cites Christopher Hitchens' work, and then says of his argument:
It locates the virtues of atheism firmly in the alleged outrages of religious believers.
That may be, but this is just one minor argument in favour of atheism. He goes on to point out that Christianity offers a transformation to the human situation, overcoming the fear of death and a 'pervasive sense of hopelessness in the face of human mortality and transciency'. Once again, this may well be true for some, but doesn't speak to the *truth* of the proposition. A more rational approach would be to understand the nature of human transciency and *embrace* it, and *revel* in it. It's our very transciency that gives our brief flicker its value, is it not? Theists want to *deny* us our humanity and replace it with a curious, ego-boosting, god-like, *immortal* state of being. And the key word there is *want*, because they cannot justify it in any other way.

McGrath's task in this article appears to be to cast *non-belief* as *belief*. But there's a twist; he *discredits* belief:
The demand that we limit ourselves to the logically and scientifically certain sounds reasonable until we realise the limits of both logic and science. Beliefs that we cannot prove to be true are part of the fabric of our lives, whether we are religious, secular or indifferent.
True, we all have beliefs we can't prove; but then 'proof' is an unattainable objective outside of maths and logic.  As with many apologists, McGrath doesn't see any difference between something which cannot be *proved*, and something for which there is *insufficient evidence*, because he doesn't approve of *non-belief*. Witness:
For example, Christians believe in God; the “New Atheists” believe that there is no God to believe in.
He cannot even write the line 'the “New Atheists” don't believe that there is a God'. This True/False boolean approach to belief is superficially attractive to many but doesn't acknowledge our knowledge or ignorance. Every proposition we are exposed to is weighed on the evidence presented, and when there is no evidence, we are naturally uncommitted - the Null position compared to True and False. When there is lots of evidence we are usually in a position to commit to True or False. For example, there is lots of evidence that we live in a heliocentric solar system. I would have difficulty *proving* this to you, but there is a mountain of evidence to this effect. It is *reasonable* to adopt the position.

Atheists don't adopt the *theist* position because the evidence presented for it is thin or contradictory. The worldviews of most theists are incoherent and redundant. It is quite difficult for an atheist to say they believe there are no gods (although some do) because it is an *absolutist* statement normally reserved for the all-knowing theists. I, personally, would always resist it for this reason, but I'm happy to say that I believe that all of the god stories so far presented to me are false. There may be a convincing story round the corner, but theism's *coherence* has yet to be established, so I will look again when a coherent story *is* presented. And just to be clear, for such a remarkable explanation of the human condition to be acceptable, the nature of any god and his workings need to be understandable. If anyone wants me to be believe something that is, by definition, inexplicable then they'll be wasting their time. 

McGrath quotes the rationally-challenged Terry Eagleton:
“We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain.”
So what? 'Reasonable to entertain' is completely different from 'reasonable to accept', and *that* is what theists harangue the rest of us to do. McGrath sums up:
All of us want to celebrate our beliefs. Yet can we do this without condemning the beliefs of others? It is an important question in contemporary Britain. The threat of social fragmentation is easily worsened if interest groups, secular or religious, lash out against others when justifying themselves. A rhetoric of dismissal and ridicule plays well to a populist gallery. Yet a robust civil society is fostered by a culture of respect and civility rather than derision and censure. Neither of these civic virtues seems to be much in evidence at the moment.
But the condemnation of the beliefs of others is *written in* to his credo, and many other theisms. Atheists merely point out the problems in his belief, and yet *we* are the ones condemned by *him* for pointing out the Emperor is naked, and further condemned by his church to an eternity in hell. A little ridicule and derision for such hypocrisy is surely in order.

Everone has a worldview they think is most in tune with reality. It is only the dogmatic who look to *punish* others for not conforming to their worldview, so one may ask why McGrath clings to a *dogmatic* worldview among the many available.

Consider this quote from the Sunday Times:
“Who are these British?” he asked. “Just western unbelievers. Islam tells us not to have any links with unbelievers. That is why this man [Dyer] will be executed in the name of God.” - Abel Hamid Abu Zeid, Algerian militant
Rather than railing against harmless non-believers, I think McGrath's time would be better spent wondering what it was about this theist's worldview that drove him to commit the murder of an innocent tourist in his god's name.

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