Back of the North Wind

Discussions of theology, philosophy, religion and life inspired by the writings of George MacDonald (and perhaps others such as CS Lewis) posted by "recovering fundamentalists".

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I am a "recovering fundamentalist". The trick is to figure out how not to throw out the Baby with the bathwater. I learn through dialogue, and so invite commentary on my posts to Back of the North Wind.

Monday, November 15, 2004

The Ethics of an Atheist

Cline, the guide of the website, claims to have provided atheist bases for morality, a reason to live and a basis for rationality in the following articles: 1, 2 and 3. I leave it to the interested reader to scan these and find the promised content. What I found, besides lots of criticism of his theist correspondents and their views, was the following argument for atheist morality:

the happiness and suffering of other human beings matter to us such that we should seek, whenever possible, to increase their happiness and decrease their suffering. It's also the "point" that morality is required for human social structures and human communities to survive at all
Marriages don't need gods in order to mean anything - they derive meaning from the people who are married and from their community which has created the institution of marriage. Laws aren't a sham so long as the community creates standards of behavior and holds people to those standards. Morality isn't senseless because we all still have to live together and survive. Gods don't have any necessary connection to any of that.
and the following argument for atheism:
This atheist is better educated and more skeptical as a general rule; they won't be so easily duped by nonsensical claims and they care more about matching their beliefs to reality.

I'd like to look at these individually. I'm going to ignore the last statement, for I do not think it particularly relevant. Nor do I have any intuition or facts (i.e., statistics) for or against the claim. The second statement (relating to marriage and societal laws) can be seen as a subset and reinforcement of the first. So I will deal only with Cline's first paragraph here.

The first statement, which I will try to translate into a more logical argument, is the following:

Assumption: Happiness and Suffering of other human beings matter to us.
Ethical Conclusion: Whenever possible, we should increase their happiness and decrease their suffering.

Note that I will not assume that this is every atheist's ethic, nor even Cline's own ethic (though that is perhaps more likely), but rather an example of an ethic being put forward as something consistent with a completely consistent materialist world-view.

I will not quibble with whether or not the ethical conclusion is a good ethic -- I will accept it as "an ethic". (I.e., does this ethic call for Euthenasia?) However, I have two other difficulties with this argument:

    1) The assumption does not follow from a self-consistent materialist world-view.
    2) "Whenever possible" may not include any ethical choice for a materialist.

For item (1), I can imagine that Cline would argue, "How dare you challenge my assumption: I am telling you that happiness and suffering of other human beings matters to us." And I am sure it does. But I also assert that this is an inconsistency in the world-view of a professing materialist. Why should happiness and suffering, if they are merely chemical reactions in the brain of a material human object -- a biological machine, matter to us? It is no answer for Cline to say "they do!", for I will counter that "they do because you intrinsically value the human as more than a piece of deterministic (or quantum-mechanically indeterministic) chemistry". If a materialist could choose one way or the other, why should a materialist care more about maintaining the organization (the life) of a human being than the coherence of a crystal-lattice?

My atheist former-boss, in these conversations, claimed that empathy was the key: that the higher creatures are on an evolutionary scale, the more empathy they have with others. A worm has no empathy, a dog may exhibit some (but a cat, none -- just kidding!), and enlightened human beings exhibit great empathy. I'll agree to this observation (not that I know about the inner workings of worms, dogs or very enlightened human beings...), but still maintain that it does not address the materialist dilemna. For a materialist, what is the difference between a sophisticated version of the Eliza program and an empathetic human being? Both obey programming, some of it deterministic, some of it perhaps randomized, but none of it able to make an independent choice, an unforced expression of empathy.

Which leads me to the issue with item (2): "Whenever possible". The problem with the ethic for a materialist of "increasing happiness and decreasing suffering whenever possible" is that the possibility is not under the control of the material being. If there is nothing beyond deterministic, quantum mechanically fluctuating (or even deterministic but chaotic) equations governing the actions of an individual, there is no question of the individual making a choice to increase happiness or decrease suffering. The individual will do whatever those governing physical equations lead her to do. Those governing equations may well be set by society, by her gene code and by external influences in the environment, but what control does she have over them? And if she has no control over them, how can she choose to act ethically?

Indeed, the materialist can make no true choices at all -- all choice is illusion. In which case, one cannot be held responsible for choices in the way in which we normally think. One can only be conditioned by others to change one's biological programming to conform to their desired choices, or be destroyed as a malfunctioning machine. (This is the topic of CS Lewis' excellent The Abolition of Man.)

But from where comes the orginal conditioning? The materialist must answer that is has an "evolutionary origin", which I take to mean that what appear to be ethical choices for the materialist must lead to either:

    a) survival of the species, or (what I think may be more current theory, a la The Selfish Gene),
    b) propagation of one's own genetic code

This is closely related to the last part of Cline's statement of morality quoted above: "morality is required for human social structures and human communities to survive at all". Again, I will not quibble with the value of "survival of human communities", but I assert that Materialism provides no basis for this value other than the evolutionary imperative. But where does that lead? There are two possibilities:

    1) Materialists have a choice to obey the evolutionary imperative -- either (a) or (b) above, or
    2) Materialists obey the evolutionary imperative without choice.

I have already asserted that Materialism is inconsistent with the idea of a true choice, so that (1) is not a real possibility. But let's assume that I am wrong, and the Materialist has a real choice whether or not to obey the evolutionary imperative. In that case, what is the Materialist's value behind supporting the evolutionary imperative? Remember, we postulate that the Materialist is free to disobey the imperative. So what is the value of survival of the species, absent "evolution" telling us to survive? If we are just collections of leptons and quarks, photons and gluons, what is the non-evolutionary imperative telling us to preserve one ordering (humanity) of these elements versus another (entropic dust)?

I'm going to be redundant and dwell on this more: it is a circular argument for an atheist to say that one should choose to obey the evolutionary imperative for species survival (or genetic code propagation) in order to have the species survive or the gene code propagate. The materialist has to provide a rationale for why the evolutionary imperative is a positive value. And the materialist view seems to argue, if not in the opposite direction, at least that there is no basis for one value over another. Why not choose maximum "cleanliness" (i.e., the absence of organic slime) as the value. (This "ethic" is described in CS Lewis' That Hideous Strength.) Or perhaps that maximizing light and minimizing matter is the supreme value? Or that maximizing species diversity (at perhaps the great expense of the human race) is the supreme ethic? Or perhaps the materialist perceives that the more advanced species have a greater capability for inflicting and experiencing suffering, and so we should strive for a Universe where only very primitive species, with no capacity for suffering, exist?

As for (2), I assert (will someone contradict me?) that without choice there are no ethics. Ethics are about making choices -- if there are no choices that may be made (in this case, because there are no true "choosers", only conditioned biological entities) then there is no question of ethics, no possibility for morality.

The Materialist Dilemna: a purely material being cannot choose to act ethically, but if it could choose, it would find no basis upon which to make a choice.

Both of these fly in the face of our common intuition and experience, but that is precisely my problem with a materialist world-view. When examined in detail, it is so inconsistent with our experience and values that it is unlivable.