Popper contra computationalism

Karl Popper was an important critic of materialist theories of the mind.  His most significant and original criticism is an argument against the possibility of a causal theory of intentionality -- an argument I discuss at length in my recent paper “Hayek, Popper, and the Causal Theory of the Mind.”  But Popper also put forward, albeit sketchily, an argument that implies the impossibility of a computational theory of the mind in particular.  The argument is presented in The Self and Its Brain, a book he co-wrote with neuroscientist John Eccles.  It foreshadows arguments later presented by John Searle and by proponents of what has come to be known as the “argument from reason,” such as Victor Reppert and William Hasker.

As I note in my recent paper (and had reason to note in an earlier post), Popper distinguishes four major functions of language.  There is, first of all, the expressive function, which involves “an outward expression of an inner state” (The Self and Its Brain, p. 58).  Here language operates in a way comparable to the sound an engine makes when it is revved up, or an animal’s cry when in pain.  The second, signaling function adds to the expressive function the generation of a reaction in others.  Popper compares it to the danger signals an animal might send out in order to alert other animals, and to the way a traffic light signals the possible presence of cars even when there are none about.  The difference between the expressive and signaling functions would seem to parallel Fred Dretske’s distinction between “natural meaning” (or meaningn) and “functional meaning” (or meaningf), which I discussed some time back in a post on Dretske.  Meaningn or “natural meaning,” it will be recalled, amounts to nothing more than an effect’s indicating the presence of its cause, as spots on the face indicate the presence of measles.  There is no possibility of misrepresentation here, since an effect will meann whatever it is that happens to cause it.  Hence if the spots on someone’s face were caused, not by measles but instead by an allergic reaction of some sort, then that, rather than measles, is what they will meann.  Popper’s “expressive function” seems more or less the same insofar as he appears to think that an effect (the sound of the engine, the animal’s cry of pain, or someone’s angry and spontaneous utterance of the appropriate expletive when stepping in something at the dog park) will “express” whatever inward state it is that happens to cause it.  The possibility of misrepresentation only clearly enters the picture with the “signaling function,” just as it does (at least if Dretske’s account succeeds) with meaningf or “functional meaning.”  An internal state or utterance might meanf that such-and-such is present even when it is not; similarly, it might in Popper’s sense “signal” the presence of something (predators, cars, or the headache your wife claims she is having) even when that something is not really there.  

Popper allows that these two elementary functions of language might be explicable in causal terms.  What he regards as inexplicable in such terms are the remaining two functions.  The descriptive function of language involves the expression of a proposition, something that can be either true or false.  The paradigm here would be the utterance of a declarative sentence, such as “Roses are red,” “Two and two make four,” or “There is a predator in the area.”  Notice that the latter example differs from an animal’s cry of warning in having a conceptual structure.  A bird’s squawk might cause another bird to feel fear and take flight.  What it does not do is convey an abstract concept like eagle, predator, or danger, and thus it does not convey the sort of propositional content that presupposes such concepts.  (Popper tentatively allows at p. 58 of The Self and its Brain that at least some animal behavior “may perhaps” involve a descriptive component and not mere signaling, giving the bee’s dance as a possible example.  I don’t find this plausible myself, but nothing in what follows rides on the issue.)  Finally, the argumentative function of language involves the expression of an inference from one or more propositions to another in a manner than can be said to be either valid or invalid, as when we reason from All men are mortal and Socrates is a man to the conclusion that Socrates is mortal.

It is Popper’s treatment of the “descriptive function” of language that indicates what he takes to be problematic about the notion of a causal theory of intentionality.  Again, I examine his argument against the possibility of such a theory in detail in “Hayek, Popper, and the Causal Theory of the Mind.”  It is in Popper’s treatment of the “argumentative function” that we find his implicit objection to computational theories of the mind.  (See The Self and Its Brain, pp. 75-81.)  Like the descriptive function, the argumentative function is something that in Popper’s view cannot be accounted for in causal terms, and he gives a separate argument to this effect.  Though he does not claim that this argument strictly refutes materialism, he says that it shows “that materialism has no right to claim that it can be supported by rational argument”; in particular, it shows that materialism, even if it were true, “is incompatible with… the acceptance of the standards of critical argument” insofar as “these standards appear from the materialist point of view as an illusion, or at least as an ideology” (p. 81).  The nerve of Popper’s argument is contained in the following passage:

The property of a brain mechanism or a computer mechanism which makes it work according to the standards of logic is not a purely physical property, although I am very ready to admit that it is in some sense connected with, or based upon, physical properties.  For two computers may physically differ as much as you like, yet they may both operate according to the same standards of logic.  And vice versa; they may differ physically as little as you may specify, yet this difference may be so amplified that the one may operate according to the standards of logic, but not the other.  This seems to show that the standards of logic are not physical properties.  (The same holds, incidentally, for practically all relevant properties of a computer qua computer.) (p. 79)

Unfortunately, while this is suggestive, Popper does not develop the argument in a formal way; the passage quoted is taken from an imagined dialogue between a “Physicalist” and an “Interactionist,” and Popper lets the responses of the latter stand in for an explicit formulation.  But the overall thrust of the argument can be reconstructed by comparison with some clearly related ideas to be found in the work of John Searle, on the one hand, and the work of proponents of what has been called the “argument from reason” on the other.

The context makes it evident that Popper intends to make both a narrow point against any attempt to explain human rationality specifically on the model of the modern digital computer, and a more general but related point against any materialist attempt to explain rationality in causal terms.  It is with respect to the former point that we find a clear parallel with Searle.  In the passage quoted, Popper says that “practically all relevant properties of a computer qua computer… are not physical properties.”  This may seem odd given that he also allows that “the property of… a computer mechanism which makes it work according to the standards of logic is… in some sense connected with, or based upon, physical properties.”  But Popper also points out that the reason a computer operates according to logical principles is that it “has been designed by us – by human minds – to work like this” (p. 76).  Its operations mirror the semantic features of linguistic symbols and their logical relationships, just as the words written in ink on a piece of paper do; but the semantics and the logical relationships are no more inherent to the physical properties in the case of the computer than they are in the case of the ink marks.  In both cases they are imparted to the physical phenomena by us – by programmers and users in the case of computers, and by writers and readers in the case of written words – rather than derived from the physical phenomena.  Hence they can hardly provide a model of how rational thought processes might be explained in purely physical terms.

Searle’s version of this line of argument emphasizes that the key notions of the modern theory of computation – “symbol manipulation,” “syntactical rules,” “information processing,” and the like – are not definable in terms of the properties attributed to material systems by physical science, but are observer-relative, existing in a physical system only insofar as some interpreting mind attributes computational properties to it.  Hence the very idea that the mind might be explained in terms of computation is incoherent.  The argument can be summarized as follows:

1. Computation involves symbol manipulation according to syntactical rules.

2. But syntax and symbols are not definable in terms of the physics of a system.

3. So computation is not intrinsic to the physics of a system, but assigned to it by an observer.

4. So the brain cannot coherently be said to be intrinsically a digital computer.

(Searle develops this argument in his paper “Is the Brain a Digital Computer?” and in chapter 9 of his book The Rediscovery of the Mind.  Note that this argument is different from Searle’s better known “Chinese Room” argument.)

There is a clear parallel between this Popper-Searle argument against a computational theory of rationality and Popper’s argument against causal theories of intentionality (which I examine in the paper linked to above).  In both cases, the materialist or physicalist is accused of making use of notions (certain causal notions in the one case, computational ones in the other) to which he is not entitled given his working assumption that the only genuine features of reality are those describable in the language of physical science.  

It is in his application of this basic idea to a critique of any possible causal account of rationality that Popper’s position resembles the anti-materialist “argument from reason.”  This is a label that has recently come to be applied to a family of related arguments to be found in the work of thinkers as diverse as Popper, J. B. S. Haldane (whom Popper cites as an influence), C. S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, Victor Reppert, and William Hasker.  (For a useful overview, see Reppert’s article “The Argument from Reason” in William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.  I discuss and defend the argument in chapter 6 of Philosophy of Mind.)  There are significant differences between these writers’ respective statements of the argument, but a “generic” version might go as follows:

1. Materialism holds that thinking consists of nothing more than the transition from one material process in the brain to another in accordance with causal laws (whether these transitions are conceived of in terms of the processing of symbols according to the rules of an algorithm à la computationalism, or on some other model).

2. Material processes have their causal efficacy, including their ability to generate other material processes, only by virtue of their physical properties (i.e. those described by physical science), and not by virtue of any meaning or semantic content that might be associated with them.  (For example, punching the symbols “1,” “+,” “1,” and “=” into a calculator will generate the further symbol “2” whether or not we associate the standard arithmetical meanings with these symbols or instead assign to them some eccentric meanings, because the electronic properties of the calculator alone are what determine what symbols get displayed.  Similarly, neural processes that are in fact associated with the thought that all men are mortal and the thought that Socrates is a man would still generate the neural process that is in fact associated with the thought that Socrates is mortal even if these neural processes had all been associated with some other meanings instead, because the neurophysiological properties of the processes alone are what determine which further processes get generated.)

3. But one thought can serve as a rational justification of another thought only by virtue of the meaning or semantic content of the thoughts.  (For example, it is only because we associate the symbols “1,” “+,” “1,” “=,” and “2” with the standard meanings that “1 + 1 = 2” expresses an arithmetical truth.  Similarly, it is only because “All men are mortal,” “Socrates is a man,” and “Socrates is mortal” have the meanings they do that the first two sentences logically entail the third, and only when the neural processes in question are associated with the corresponding thoughts that the first two provide a rational justification for believing the third.)

4. So if materialism is true, then there is nothing about our thought processes that can make one thought a rational justification of another; for their physical and causal relations alone, and not their semantic and logical relations, determine which thought follows which.

5. So if materialism is true, none of our thoughts ever is rationally justified.

6. But this includes the thoughts of materialists themselves.

7. So if materialism is true, then it cannot be rationally justified; the theory undermines itself.

The upshot of this argument is that instantiating causal relations, of whatever sort, does not by itself amount to instantiating logical relations; and this is precisely what Popper is getting at in the passage above when he says that “brain mechanisms” or “computer mechanisms” may “differ physically as little as you may specify, yet this difference may be so amplified that the one may operate according to the standards of logic, but not the other.”  Hence even if we concede that certain causal processes are necessary conditions for our reasoning logically (which Popper allows insofar as he says that our ability to follow standards of logic is “in some sense connected with, or based upon, physical properties”), they are not sufficient conditions – in which case there can be no (purely) causal explanation of our ability to reason logically.

Step 2 of the argument seems to follow from the standard materialist assumption that whatever happens in the natural world supervenes on what happens at the microphysical level of nature – the level of the basic particles described by physics and the laws governing them – together with the further materialist assumption that meaning or semantic content is not a microphysical property, whatever else the materialist wants to say about it.  That this appears to make the meanings of our thoughts “epiphenomenal” or causally irrelevant to what happens in the world is known as “the problem of mental causation.”  Of course, the meanings of our thoughts seem to have an effect on what we say and do; in particular, it certainly seems to us that we judge an inference like All men are mortal and Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal to be rational because of the meanings associated with these words, and would not judge it to be rational if they had some different content.  But Popper’s point is that, if materialism is true, then we can have no grounds for believing that what seems to be the case really is the case.  Perhaps the inference in question is in fact irrational, while an inference that seems irrational to us, like All men are mortal, and Grandma drives a Buick, therefore robots are stealing my luggage is a paradigm of rational thinking.  Perhaps we don’t see this for the same reason the calculator would spit back “2” in response to the sequence “1 +1 =” even if the latter set of symbols expressed the question Does Grandma drive a Buick? and the former expressed the bizarre answer No, robots are stealing my luggage – namely for the reason that only the physical properties of events occurring in both calculators and brains, and not any semantic or logical properties associated with them, determine what effects they will generate.

For this reason Popper claims that materialism tends to reduce the argumentative function of language no less than the descriptive function to the sub-rational expressive and signaling functions, and thereby tends also to “make us blind to the difference between propaganda, verbal intimidation, and rational argument” (The Self and Its Brain, p. 59).  Now Popper presumably thought that his friend F. A. Hayek’s account of the mind was open to this sort of criticism, just as it was open to the criticism I discuss in “Hayek, Popper, and the Causal Theory of the Mind.”  There is irony in this, for Hayek himself accuses others of what Popper implicitly accuses him.  Hayek argued in The Counter-Revolution of Science, an important critique of scientism, that “the ground for a thorough irrationalism” lay implicit in any view of human beings aimed at “uncovering hidden causes which, unknown to the thinker, have determined his conclusions.” (p. 159).  His target was the relativist idea that a person’s race or class situation determines what he thinks.  Popper’s claim is that the materialist view that our thoughts are determined by the hidden causal processes uncovered by physical science is no less implicitly irrationalist.


Hayek and Popper on the mind

My paper “Hayek, Popper, and the Causal Theory of the Mind,” which recently appeared in a volume of Advances in Austrian Economics devoted to the theme Hayek in Mind: Hayek’s Philosophical Psychology, is currently available online in its entirety via Google Books.


How to animate a corpse

One of the downsides of being a philosopher is that it makes it harder to suspend disbelief when watching horror flicks.  Plot holes become more glaring and speculations seem wilder when one’s business is looking for fallacies.  On the other hand, there is nothing so absurd but some philosopher has said it; hence there’s no one better placed to find a way to make even the most preposterous yarn seem at least remotely plausible.  A case in point, submitted for your approval: My take on a segment from Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, adapted from H. P. Lovecraft’s short story “Cool Air.”  (You can find it on Hulu and YouTube.)  Watching it for the first time recently, I was annoyed by what at first seemed to me an obviously nonsensical twist ending.  On further reflection, there is a way to make sense of it, if one makes the appropriate metaphysical assumptions.

The story, in the Night Gallery version, goes as follows.  (You might want to watch it before reading further, if you don’t want it spoiled -- though perhaps you’ll be more likely to enjoy it after seeing how it might be made sense of.)  In 1923, Dr. Juan Muñoz, an eccentric widowed physician, is visited in his apartment by Agatha Howard, the daughter of one of his former colleagues.  The apartment, as she soon discovers, is kept uncomfortably cold by a refrigerating machine.  Muñoz explains that he has a rare illness that makes it impossible for him to survive temperatures higher than 55 degrees Fahrenheit.  Agatha and Muñoz discuss the shared interest he and her late father had in conquering death.  While the former had approached the subject through cellular research, Muñoz’s own approach tended toward the “mystic,” seeking the means of keeping death at bay in an act of will.  

As their conversation continues, a mutual attraction develops, and since Muñoz cannot leave his apartment, Agatha begins to visit him regularly.  When a heat wave strikes, she receives from him a frantic call for help, and she arrives at his apartment to find him draped in a sheet, peering out through the folds.  Muñoz tells her that his refrigerating machine has broken down and must be repaired immediately if he is to survive.  She is able to get a repairman to look at it, but he tells Muñoz that a needed part cannot be acquired until the next day, given the lateness of the hour.  Agatha arranges to have hundreds of pounds of ice delivered to Muñoz’s apartment to keep him as cold as possible until the machine can be repaired.

The next morning, Agatha finds that Muñoz has only gotten worse and has locked himself in the bathroom, refusing to let her in.  His voice weak, he reveals that his late wife had killed herself because she couldn’t bear to live with a corpse -- for he had, he says, actually died ten years ago and has ever since been desperately trying to keep his dead body from deteriorating.  Agatha then hears him fall to the floor, forces the door open, and to her horror finds Muñoz’s motionless, rotted corpse staring up from the sheet.  In an epilogue, we see Muñoz’s headstone, on which is inscribed the following:

BORN 1887

DIED 1913

AND 1923

End of story.  Now, while it is of course in the nature of a fantasy tale to be fantastic, there should nevertheless be a logic to it -- a way of making the fantastic elements seem at least theoretically possible -- if the audience is to be able to suspend disbelief.  This could involve the kind of scientific speculation that makes a good science fiction story work, or the application of some metaphysical or theological theses that have been worked out with some rigor in other contexts.  (For example, Dante’s Divine Comedy, though obviously a work of imagination, is nevertheless grounded in a sophisticated system of metaphysics and theology -- a kind of hard SF for Thomists, you might say.  Daniel Dennett’s short story “Where Am I?” is a recent example of a tale grounded not in empirical science but nevertheless in serious -- though in my view erroneous -- metaphysical speculation.)  

At the very least, a good horror or fantasy tale should be grounded in folk ideas which, while perhaps having no serious philosophical articulation, have the weight of tradition or history behind them.  Hence we are willing to overlook the implausible or unexplained aspects of stories about vampires, werewolves, zombies, wizards, and the like, because while there seems little in the way of explanation of how such things could be possible (other than an appeal to magic, which is no explanation at all), the ideas are so longstanding that they derive a kind of honorary or “as if” plausibility merely from the fact of their familiarity.  

The odd thing about “Cool Air” is that its fantastic element doesn’t obviously derive from any of these sources.  To be sure, Lovecraft’s original story indicates a little more clearly that Muñoz’s preservation after death was made possible through a mixture of scientific and occult means, but these are kept extremely vague.  Muñoz is not portrayed in either version as having been revivified through electricity (as in Frankenstein) or through witchcraft (as with zombies).  More to the point, he doesn’t act like an ambulant corpse at all, but rather like a man whose body is decaying but still alive.  What is never made clear is what his “death” years earlier could have amounted to if his consciousness and bodily activity carried on uninterrupted.   Was it a matter of some of his crucial tissues and organs dying but the whole organism nevertheless carrying on through an act of will?  That can’t be right, because it wouldn’t really be death but merely a bizarre illness, and the punch of the story depends on our finding out that Muñoz is really a corpse.  But if he really had literally died years before -- the entire organism perishing, not just some organs -- how can it be that Muñoz carries on for years afterward?  It would be one thing to say that he was gone, but that his body was kept animated through bizarre means, as with a zombie or Frankenstein monster.  But the story has it that Muñoz himself carries on, desperately trying to keep his body from rotting even though he had died.  And that doesn’t seem to make any sense.

Or at least it doesn’t, given certain metaphysical assumptions, particularly the ones I would bring to bring to bear.  On an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) hylemorphic view of human nature, when the body dies, the person dies.  A-T regards the soul as the form of the living body, the principle which is responsible for all of its characteristic activities, from the lowest vegetative functions to the highest, intellectual ones.  For a human being to die is just for the matter of his body to lose this form or soul.  The soul carries on, but not as a complete substance, and thus not as the complete person.  More to the point, the body does not carry on at all; its matter takes on different forms -- of bone, meat, and the like, and of the chemicals that existed virtually in the body while it was alive.  Certainly it loses the capacity to carry out the functions characteristic of human life -- walking about, engaging in intelligent conversation, etc.  If what seemed to be a corpse was carrying out these activities, it would have to have the form of a thing capable of doing so, and thus would have a human soul and not really be a corpse at all.  Hence, from an A-T point of view, the basic premise of “Cool Air” makes no sense.  Muñoz is either dead or he isn’t.  If he is, then there can be no question of him still walking around in his body, carrying out a conversation, etc.  And if he is doing these things, then he isn’t really dead.  Perhaps he had died and then been resurrected -- his soul coming once again to inform the matter of his body -- only with a body that immediately began to degenerate.  But that’s not the same as being dead.  

Hence my initial reaction to the story.  Nor do I think that reaction is merely philosophically motivated.  The A-T view regards itself as a theoretical articulation of common sense, and I think it pretty clearly tracks common sense in this case.  Even apart from the metaphysical considerations, one wants to say at the end of the story:  “Huh?  If he really, literally died ten years ago, how has he been walking around and doing all this other stuff, uninterrupted, since then?”

But suppose instead that we took a Cartesian view of human nature.  On that sort of view, soul and body are not two aspects of one substance, but rather two complete stand-alone substances in their own right.  In particular, the soul is not the form of the body, and soul and body are thus not related (as they are for A-T) as formal cause and material cause respectively.  The soul (or res cogitans -- a “thing that thinks,” as Descartes reconceived it) is rather an eccentric kind of efficient cause, a “ghost in the machine,” as Gilbert Ryle famously put it.  And the body is indeed a kind of machine on this view, capable in principle of behaving just as we are used to seeing it behave, but without any conscious or intellectual activity guiding it.  (This is the source of the modern idea of a “zombie,” in the philosophical sense of that term, viz. a creature that is physically and behaviorally identical to a normal human being but is devoid of consciousness.)  The death of the body is thus on the Cartesian view not the loss of a certain kind of form, but rather a kind of mechanical breakdown.  Life and death thus have no essential connection to the presence or absence of the soul, because the soul is not conceived of in the first place as that which gives the body its distinctively organic characteristics.  

Now the Cartesian view notoriously faces the “interaction problem,” the puzzle of explaining how a material substance (understood, for the Cartesian, as a substance whose essence is to be extended in space) and a res cogitans or thinking substance (understood as a substance whose essence is thought and nothing but thought, and is thus immaterial or non-extended) can get in any sort of efficient-causal contact.  But however this is supposed to work, the causal relationship between the two turns out to be no more special then the causal relationship a res cogitans might have to any other material substance.  Soul and body are not related, as they are for A-T, as form and matter -- two aspects of one thing, where for the soul to inform a body just is for that body to be alive.  Think instead of a spirit possessing some inanimate object -- a ghost or demon causing a record player or television to switch on, or objects to move through the air as in movies like Poltergeist -- and you’ve got a model for how soul and body are related on the Cartesian view.  Just as the poltergeist is a completely distinct thing from a physical object that it “haunts” or moves about, so too are a res cogitans and the body it is associated with completely independent.  The record player a poltergeist flips on would have been just as it is even if the poltergeist had never done so, and the poltergeist could have flipped on something else instead.  And the body a Cartesian res cogitans controls would have been exactly as it is even if it had been controlled instead by another res cogitans or by no res cogitans at all; while the res cogitans in turn could instead have controlled some other body, or some other kind of physical object altogether -- a record player, or even a corpse.

And that brings us back to “Cool Air.”  If we take a Cartesian approach to human nature, then the story becomes intelligible.  Muñoz’s death ten years before the story begins was the death of his body, and this involved, not the body’s loss of a certain kind of form (as it would on the A-T view) but rather a kind of mechanical breakdown.  The death of the body would therefore not entail (as it would on the A-T view, where the soul is just the form of the body) that the soul, and therefore the person, was no longer present.  Rather, we can imagine that Muñoz’s res cogitans continued to interact with his corpse just as it had been interacting with his body -- somehow pushing about bits of dead flesh just as it had previously been pushing about living flesh, or as a ghost or demon might push about the physical objects it moves around the room it is haunting.  And just as a ghost or a demon’s possession of the corpse of a dog wouldn’t by itself keep that corpse from rotting, neither did Muñoz’s continued interaction with his now dead body keep it from rotting -- which is why he needed to keep it cold for as long as he could.  For a soul in the A-T sense to animate a corpse would, as I have indicated, just be for that body to be resurrected or brought back to life.  That a Cartesian res cogitans is interacting with a corpse doesn’t by itself accomplish that.  But it does suffice to animate it in the looser sense of causing it to move about, to speak, and so forth.  And that, it seems to me, is how we have to imagine Muñoz’s relation to his dead body if we are to make sense of the story.

Of course, as an A-T philosopher, I reject the Cartesian position.  Indeed, for reasons set out in The Last Superstition, I regard it as philosophically disastrous.  But let’s give it its due -- it comes in pretty handy when one is trying to relax, suspend disbelief, and enjoy an episode of Night Gallery.  

(I spell out and defend the A-T hylemorphic view of human nature in chapter 8 of Philosophy of Mind and, more thoroughly, in chapter 4 of Aquinas.  Earlier posts on A-T hylemorphism, Cartesian dualism, the interaction problem, and related matters can be found here.  Apart from Night Gallery, Rod Serling is, of course, best known as the man behind The Twilight Zone, on which I’ve had occasion to comment before, here and here.)


Cal Poly Pomona seminar

This coming Saturday, February 25, I’ll be speaking at Cal Poly Pomona at a seminar on the theme “Does God Exist?” sponsored by the Cal Poly Pomona Catholic Newman Club.  The other speakers are Dr. Ronda Chervin and Fr. John Bullock.  More information is available here.


The metaphysics of romantic love

Traditional natural law theory is often accused of reducing sexual morality to mere anatomy, the proper fitting together of body parts.  The charge is unjust.  To be sure, because we are animals of a sort, the natural ends of our bodily organs cannot fail to be partially definitive of what is good for us.  But because we are rational animals, our bodily goods take on a higher significance, participating in our intellectual and volitional powers.  These goods, the rational and the bodily, cannot be sundered or compartmentalized, because man is a unity, not a ghost in a machine.  Even eating participates in our rationality -- food becomes cuisine, and a meal becomes in the normal case a social occasion.  Sex is no different, and the ends toward which it is aimed by nature are as rational, as distinctively human, as they are bodily and animal.

I’ve set out and defended the basic traditional natural law approach to sexual morality elsewhere, most fully at pp. 132-52 of The Last Superstition.  In the context of a recent post on another subject, I had occasion to set out and defend the “perverted faculty argument” that forms an important part -- though only a part -- of a complete traditional natural law account of sex.  As I have argued, whatever else sex is, it is essentially procreative.  If human beings did not procreate, then while they might form close emotional bonds with one another, maybe even exclusive ones, they would not have sex -- that is to say, they would not be man and woman, as opposed to something asexual or androgynous.  (The claim is not that procreation entails sex -- there is in the biological realm such a thing as asexual reproduction -- but rather that sex entails procreation in the sense that procreation is the reason sex exists in the first place, even if sex does not in every case result in procreation and even if procreation could have occurred in some other way.)  Given the Aristotelian metaphysics of essentialism and immanent teleology that underlies traditional natural law theory, this fact is normative.  And that some individual human beings have bodily traits or psychological dispositions that don’t reflect the procreative end of sex no more makes it any less normative than the existence of three-legged dogs (due to injury or genetic defect) falsifies the claim that dogs by nature are “supposed to” have four legs.

Unlike other sexually reproducing animals, though, we know this about ourselves, we know that qua male or female each of us is in some unusual way incomplete.   We conceptualize our incompleteness, and idealize what we think will remedy it.  And it is important to note that this is as true of human sexuality at its most “raw” and “animal” as it is of its more refined manifestations.  Dogs don’t worry about the size of breasts and genitalia; nor do they dress each other up in garters and stockings, or in leather and leashes for that matter.  The latter are adornments --some perfectly innocent, some not -- and reflect an aesthetic attitude toward the object of desire of which non-rational animals are incapable.  

Like the sexual organs, then, our sexual psychology is “directed at” or “points to” something beyond itself, and in particular toward what alone can complete us given our natures.  The human soul as a whole is directed to another soul -- and not merely toward certain organs -- as its complement, man to woman and woman to man.  (Again, that some people do not have a desire for the opposite sex, and in some cases lack sexual desire for anyone at all, is as irrelevant to the natural end of our psychological faculties as the existence of clubfeet is to telling us what nature intends feet for.)  This is why self-abuse and pornography are corrupting -- they take what by its nature can be fulfilled only by another soul and turn it inward, like an arrow pointed back at the archer.

It is this psychological “other-directedness” that makes human sexuality especially interesting and strange.  I had occasion in an earlier post to discuss C. S. Lewis’s useful distinction between Venus and Eros.  Venus is sexual desire, which can be (even if it shouldn’t be) felt for and satisfied by any number of people.  Eros is the longing associated with being in love with someone, and no one other than that one person can satisfy it.  Obviously, Venus can and very often does exist without Eros.  Eros typically includes Venus, but it not only focuses Venus specifically on the object of romantic longing, but carries that longing to the point where Venus, along with everything else, might even be sacrificed for the sake of the beloved if necessary.  Sexual release is the object of Venus; the beloved is the object of Eros.

Now, the natural law theorist argues that the procreative end of sex -- broadly construed to include the rearing of children (and many children at that, in the normal case), which is a long-term project -- points to the need for a stable bond between parents, and thus marriage.  (As always, the existence of occasional legitimate exceptions -- the sterile or aged couple, for example -- do not alter what the norm is, and thus what the point of marriage as an institution is.)  Venus alone hardly suffices for this stability; it prods us to seek a member of the opposite sex, but not to stay with the particular one we’ve found.  For that we need Eros.  

I am inclined to argue, then, that Venus and Eros are, considered in terms of their natural function, not distinct faculties, but opposite ends of a continuum.  Eros is the perfection of Venus; mere Venus is a deficient form of Eros.  Human experience seems to confirm this insofar as it is the rare Lothario who does not at some point desire something more substantial, and the rare Erotic lover who is willing entirely to forego Venus.  A pair of anecdotes illustrate (and I don’t claim that by themselves they prove, but merely that they illustrate) the thesis.  Consider first the following exchange, which Dustin Hoffman reports having had with his co-star (and notorious womanizer) Warren Beatty during the making of the movie Ishtar:

Despite his growing difficulties with [director Elaine] May, Beatty never complained about her—except once.  He and Hoffman were in the desert, along with 150-odd extras.  He took his co-star aside and started venting.  “Warren was going off about how painful it was to make this movie with Elaine,” Hoffman recalls.  “He said, ‘I was going to give this gift to Elaine, and it turned out to be the opposite.  I tried this and I tried that … ’  He was so passionate, but in the middle of it—it’s like he had eyes in the back of his head, because there was some girl walking by, maybe 50 yards away, in a djellaba.  He turned and froze, just watched her.  I mean, this was while he was producing and everything was going in the toilet.  But he couldn’t help it.”

Finally, Beatty turned back to Hoffman and asked, “Where was I?”

“Warren, let me ask you something,” Hoffman said.  “Here everything is going wrong on this movie that you planned out to be a perfect experience for Elaine, and here’s a girl that you can’t even see a quarter of her face because of the djellaba—what is that about?”

“I don’t know.”

“Let me ask you something else.  Theoretically, is there any woman on the planet that you would not make love to?  If you had the chance?”

“That’s an interesting question: Is there any woman on the planet”—Beatty paused and looked up at the sky—“that I wouldn’t make love to?  Any woman at all?”

Hoffman continues: “He repeated the question, because he took it very seriously.  This problem with the production was now on the back burner, and it was like he was on Charlie Rose.

“Yes, any woman,” said Hoffman.

“That I wouldn’t … ?” said Beatty.  “No, there isn’t.”

“Theoretically, you would make love to any and every woman?”


“You’re serious.”




Hoffman: “He was thinking.  He was searching for the right words.  ‘Because … you never know.’  I thought that was the most romantic thing I’d ever heard a man say, because he was talking about spirits uniting.  He was not talking about the cover of the book. 

End quote.   Beatty, it seems, saw in his womanizing, at least in part, a search for something that would finally put an end to it -- the right woman, a particular “spirit” concealed behind one among all the many “covers” he was keen to open in quest of it.  (Apparently, that woman was Annette Bening.)

Another anecdote, and from the opposite end of our continuum, related in philosopher Robert Solomon’s book About Love:

A nun who once took one of my courses admitted to me that she was in love with the priest whom she worked for, and he with her.  They maintained their chastity, and quite obviously emphasized the spiritual and personal aspects of their love.  “But why,” she asked with a kind of despair, “does it seem that the only adequate expression of our love has to be physical?” (pp. 137-8)

As this illustrates, even in those committed to celibacy, Erotic love, when it strikes one -- needless to say, someone who’s taken a vow of celibacy shouldn’t be looking for it -- seems incomplete without Venus.  Again, there seems to be a continuum here, rather than two separable drives.  And it is one that goes deep in human nature itself, since sex -- our being male or female -- is part of what we are by nature.  To use the language of Catholic moral theology, the procreative end of sex has in rational animals been inextricably fused by nature to a unitive end, and the average human being is not entirely fulfilled without realizing both.

Unless, that is, through grace he sacrifices it for an even higher end, a supernatural end (in the theological sense of “supernatural” -- that which adds to our nature -- that I’ve had reason to discuss in this recent post and in this one).  That is what the life of the priest or the religious involves.  Those who’ve taken vows of celibacy do so not because sex, love, and marriage are bad, but because although they are very good indeed, there is something even better to which they have been called, and which demands their exclusive devotion.  

This brings us to the question: If sex is part of our nature, what happens to it in the resurrection, when our bodies are restored to us?  The question is treated at some length in some of the latter sections of Book Four of Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles.  On the one hand, Aquinas argues that the integrity of the body requires that our organs be restored to us, including our digestive and sexual organs.  Hence we will be men and women forever, and in that sense sex will exist forever.  But what about sexual intercourse?  Aquinas argues that that will not occur, and the reason is essentially the same as the reason he says we will not eat in the afterlife: Then, unlike now, we will be forever preserved from corruption by God; hence there will be no need for that which has as its point the preservation of the body (food) or that which has as its point the preservation of the species (sexual intercourse).  

But if we will always be male and female, and to that extent by nature individually incomplete and oriented beyond ourselves -- that is to say, Erotic -- how can this be?  The answer, I would suggest, is to be found in the supernatural rather than the natural order -- though keeping in mind that the supernatural does not negate the natural, but rather raises it up.  Our Erotic drive is not to be extirpated, as if it were something low and merely animal, for it is not that at all.  It is rather to be sublimed, oriented toward an even higher, supernatural object, an antitype of which human lovers are types.  This is presumably part of the point of the biblical imagery of the Church as the Bride of Christ, of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, and of the virgins running to meet the Bridegroom.  As I noted in a post on Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in this life Eros, which seeks to be happy ever after, all too often leads to idolatry and despair.  In the next it will be fulfilled beyond its wildest hopes -- in seeing God face to face, and also in seeing the divine reflection in each other more clearly than we could have before.  And, perhaps, seeing that reflection in a special way in those we have loved in this life.

But a Valentine’s Day post shouldn’t be entirely heavy and high-falutin’.  So, as you curl up on the couch with your sweetheart to snuggle and read Feser’s blog together, here are some choice tunes to provide you with a romantic soundtrack.  From the sublime to the ridiculous:

Duke Ellington, “Where or When”

Stevie Wonder, “My Cherie Amour”

Boz Scaggs, “Miss Sun”

Greg Phillinganes, “Lazy Nina”

Jamiroquai, “Falling”

Bryan Ferry, “Slave to Love”

Artie Shaw Orchestra with Helen Forrest, “All the Things You Are”

Spandau Ballet, “True”

(I dedicate this post and the songs to my wife.  I love you, Rachel.)


John Hick (1922-2012)

The Prosblogion reports that philosopher of religion John Hick has died.  I knew Hick twenty years ago, during his final semester at the Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University), when I took the last course he taught there.  He was a kind man and one of the best teachers I ever had.  He was also a good, clear writer, and his work in philosophy of religion was informed by a deep knowledge of the history of Christian theology and of the world religions.  His book Evil and the God of Love is one of the most important works on the problem of evil in recent philosophy and theology, and made a great impression on me when I first read it as a young man.

I agreed with him on very little.  During the brief time I was his student, that was in part because I was in my early atheist phase, and he was a Christian, albeit a highly heterodox one.  I recall earnestly telling him of my interest in Nietzsche and Walter Kaufmann, whereupon he related with a just barely detectable condescension that Nietzsche had been his “delight” too in his own youthful skeptical days, and that Kaufmann no doubt would have been his delight as well had he then known of him.  The unspoken implication was that this was the sort of stuff one grows out of, or ought to anyway.  And of course, he was right.

I argued with Hick vigorously in the classroom and in a term paper I wrote for him -- displaying in the latter “the polemical enthusiasm of youth,” as he put it -- but he was a good sport (and gave me an A anyway).  I never saw him lose his composure, even when a student was asking for it.  (I recall once that Hick had, in his very gentle and philosophically serious way, disagreed with a female student about whether there could really be such a thing as a “contentless experience” of a mystical sort, or some such thing.  Another student later suggested to me that Hick had disagreed with the first student only because she was a woman -- a patently ludicrous suggestion given Hick’s personal kindness and liberal convictions, and given the complete irrelevance of “sexism” to the issue that was under discussion.)

I have always believed, even when I was an atheist, that one’s religion ought to be of the traditional sort if one was going to be religious at all.  Anything else is just made up.  (My atheist readers can spare us the obvious “It’s all made up!” retort.  That’s what I used to think.)  And so I had little time for Hick’s extreme theological liberalism even when I wasn’t a believer anyway.  I have had even less time for it since returning to the Catholic Church about a decade ago.  Hick’s views on Christology, for example, are flatly heretical and completely destructive of Christianity.  (I recall him admitting in private discussion -- perhaps he’s said the same thing in print somewhere -- that a non-believer was less likely to bother converting to the completely watered-down versions of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc. that Hick’s religious pluralism required.  Hick himself had moved to the theological left only well after his conversion.)

But on some subjects, such as the problem of evil, he made a lasting contribution.  And I learned much from him, for which I will always be grateful.  Requiescat in pace.


Review of Atkins and Feyerabend

Readers of the Claremont Review of Books may want to look for my review, in the latest issue, of Peter Atkins’ On Being and Paul Feyerabend’s The Tyranny of Science.  Feyerabend’s book (which would more accurately have been called The Tyranny of Scientism) is a small gem.  Atkins’ book, not so much.  At the moment the review is behind a pay wall, but my understanding is that the content will eventually be made available online for free.  So you could wait.  Or you could do the fine folks at CRB a favor and subscribe.


Contraception, subsidiarity, and the Catholic bishops

By now you may have heard that the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic, has issued a mandate that will require Catholic hospitals, universities, and charities to pay for contraceptives, including abortifacients, for their employees -- despite the fact that the Catholic Church teaches that contraception and abortion are intrinsically gravely immoral.  The United States Council of Catholic Bishops has vigorously denounced this act of tyranny, and is working to reverse it.  That is good, and we Catholics should support their efforts.  But it would have been better if the bishops had been equally vigorously upholding Catholic teaching on contraception and subsidiarity over the last several decades, and disciplining Catholics in public life who obstinately promote policies that the Church regards as inherently gravely evil.  Had they done so, it is unlikely that this outrage ever would have been perpetrated in the first place.

For decades now, the majority of Catholics have been ignoring the Church’s teaching that the use of contraceptives is mortally sinful.  Even priests who accept that teaching rarely speak about it from the pulpit.  Theologians and professors in Catholic colleges and universities who reject it are for the most part allowed to teach and write against it unmolested.  As a result, it is widely assumed that a Catholic may in good conscience dissent from the Church’s teaching.  It is also no doubt widely thought that many churchmen are embarrassed by this teaching, and expect it someday to change.  The bishops have made no serious effort to counteract these perceptions.  Though they often issue bold statements regarding prudential matters about which they have no special competence -- economic policy, immigration policy, health care policy -- and have been extremely vigorous in promoting a strict abolitionist position on capital punishment that Catholic teaching does not actually require, they do not seem to think it urgent to correct the vast number of Catholics who flout a basic moral doctrine, the teaching and enforcement of which is the bishops’ special responsibility.  How surprised should they be, then, when those hostile to the Church’s teaching judge that Catholics will “roll over” for policies like the one now issued by HHS?  If Catholics and their leaders don’t seem to take the Church’s teaching on contraception very seriously, why should the Obama administration?  (One USCCB official has asked why the administration is allowing the Amish and Christian Scientists to opt out of its health plan, but does not show equal respect to Catholics.  Perhaps the answer is that the government has no doubt that the Amish and the Christian Scientists really believe and practice what they preach.)

The bishops have also put little emphasis on the principle of subsidiarity, according to which the needs of individuals, families, and local communities ought as a matter of justice to be met as far as possible by those individuals, families, and communities themselves rather than by centralized governmental institutions.  This is a fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching, and its point is in part precisely to shield smaller and more local institutions from arbitrary and tyrannical power of the sort the federal government is now exercising vis-à-vis Catholic institutions.  Yet most Catholics have probably never heard of the principle; worse, and as I complained in a post on the 2010 health care debate, though the Obama administration’s health care plan is seriously objectionable from the point of view of subsidiarity, the bishops took no account of the principle when commenting on the plan.  Indeed, they gave the impression that, apart from some aspects of the plan concerning abortion and coverage of illegal immigrants, it was not only unobjectionable but something to “applaud.”  How surprised should they be when government officials well known for their hostility to Catholic teaching use the power the bishops have urged them to take in ways the bishops do not like?

It goes without saying that the bishops have also done very little to discipline those Catholic politicians who publicly and obstinately promote policies which the Church teaches are gravely immoral.  Only a few individual bishops have dared to state publicly that those Catholic politicians who promote abortion or “same-sex marriage” ought not to receive Holy Communion.  But no such politician seems to have taken these admonitions seriously, and even the most conservative bishops seem to regard the harsher penalty of excommunication as unthinkable.  How surprised should they be now that one of these Catholic politicians -- Kathleen Sebelius -- has moved on from promoting abortion "rights" to actively persecuting her fellow Catholics, while other Catholics in the administration (such as Vice President Joe Biden) stand by without protest?

Suppose that the bishops had for decades consistently thundered against contraception and disciplined all priests and Catholic writers and teachers who publicly dissented from the Church’s teaching.  There would be many more Catholics faithful to the Church’s teaching than there are now, both because more Catholics would realize how grave a sin contraception is, and because they would be having far more children than they do now.  Even those Catholics who still disobeyed the teaching would be more likely to have a guilty conscience about doing so, and would be far less likely to dissent from it publicly.  And non-Catholics would have no doubt whatsoever that the bishops, and Catholics more generally, would “go to the mat” to protect Catholic institutions from policies like the one now announced by HHS.

Suppose also that the bishops had consistently and vigorously brought the principle of subsidiarity to bear on matters of public policy about which they decided to comment.  Both they and Catholic politicians like Bart Stupak would have been much more cautious about advocating policies that might give to government powers it ought not to have and which might threaten the liberty of Catholics to practice their religion.  And suppose that Catholic politicians who promoted grave evils like abortion even after being warned against doing so were swiftly punished with excommunication.  Obviously there would be fewer Catholic politicians who would dare to promote such evils, and fewer Catholic voters who would dare help to elect such people in the first place.  

And had the bishops been doing these things, is it likely that the Obama administration would be taking the course it has now decided upon?  Or is it more likely that the Catholic Church would be treated with the deference that the Amish and Christian Scientists are apparently getting?  To ask the question is to answer it.  When we fail to render unto God what is due to Him -- the promotion and enforcement of His Church’s basic moral teachings -- we should not be surprised when non-believers do not take those teachings seriously.  And when we render unto Caesar power to which he has no right, we should not be surprised when he abuses it.


Reading Rosenberg, Part VII

Pressing on through Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, we come to Rosenberg’s treatment of morality.  Followed out consistently, Rosenberg says, scientism entails nihilism.  As Rosenberg is keen to emphasize, this is not the same as moral relativism or moral skepticism.  It is not the claim that moral truth is relative, or that it is real but unknowable.  Nor is it the claim that everything is morally permitted.  It is a far more radical and disturbing claim than any of these views.  Nihilism, as Rosenberg understands it, is the view that there is no such thing as being “morally permitted” or “morally prohibited” in the first place.  For there is, given Rosenberg’s scientism, no intrinsic value in the world of the sort that is necessary for morality to be intelligible.  Morality -- not just commonsense or traditional morality, not just religious morality, but all morality, morality as such, including any purported secular, liberal, permissive morality -- is therefore an illusion.  

Rosenberg minces no words:

There is really one bit of bad news that remains to trouble scientism.  We have to acknowledge (to ourselves, at least) that many questions we want the “right” answers to just don’t have any.  These are questions about the morality of stem-cell research or abortion or affirmative action or gay marriage or our obligations to future generations.  Many enlightened people, including many scientists, think that reasonable people can eventually find the right answers to such questions.  Alas, it will turn out that all anyone can really find are the answers that they like.  The same goes for those who disagree with them.  Real moral disputes can be ended in lots of ways: by voting, by decree, by fatigue of the disputants, by the force of example that changes social mores.  But they can never really be resolved by finding the correct answers.  There are none. (p. 96)

For Rosenberg, the consistent naturalist thus has no business moralizing about racism, sexism, social justice, gay rights, animal rights, or what have you.  If scientism is correct, appeals to egalitarian liberal moral premises are as deluded as appeals to natural law or the Ten Commandments.  The liberal can work to promote certain attitudes and discourage others, but he has no grounds for regarding his position as more just or otherwise morally superior to that of his conservative opponents.  At least where questions of value (as opposed to fact) are concerned, the liberal and the conservative just have difference preferences, and that’s that.  Since (notwithstanding a nod to Hayek’s insights about the market) Rosenberg makes it clear that his sympathies are with the Left, his consistency does him credit.  Unfortunately, even Rosenberg’s consistency has its limits.

But before we get to that, it must be emphasized that it is indeed Rosenberg’s scientism, and not his atheism per se, that entails nihilism.  For morality does not depend on religion in quite the way many people suppose it does.  Many religious people think of morality as essentially a set of arbitrary divine commands, so that to deny the existence of a divine commandment-giver is implicitly to deny the very possibility of morality.  Atheists of the sort who populate Woody Allen movies seem to be of the same opinion.  But things are not so simple.  As other atheists rightly point out, if morality rested on nothing but arbitrary divine commands, then anything at all -- including torturing babies just for fun, say -- would be morally legitimate if God commanded it, which seems absurd.  Moreover, we would be left with no explanation of why we should obey God’s arbitrary commands in the first place.

The only alternative to this view, these atheists think, is to acknowledge a source of morality entirely independent of God.  This, of course, is the famous Euthyphro dilemma.  But the dilemma is a false one – certainly from the point of view of Thomism, for reasons I explain in Aquinas.  As with all the other supposedly big, bad objections to theism, this one rests on caricature, and a failure to make crucial distinctions.  First of all, we need to distinguish the issue of the content of moral obligations from the issue of what gives them their obligatory force.  Divine command is relevant to the second issue, but not the first.  Second, it is an error to think that tying morality in any way to divine commands must make it to that extent arbitrary, a product of capricious divine fiat.  That might be so if we think of divine commands in terms of Ockham’s voluntarism and nominalism, but not if, following Aquinas, we hold that will follows upon intellect, so that God always acts in accordance with reason.  Third, that does not entail that what determines the content of morality and God’s rationale for commanding as He does is in any way independent of Him.

I have elaborated upon all of this in an earlier post, to which the interested reader is directed.  The point to emphasize for now is that though there is a sense in which God is the ultimate ground of morality (if only because he is the ultimate ground of everything), the proximate ground of morality is human nature, or at least human nature as understood in light of a classical (and especially Aristotelian) essentialist and teleological metaphysics.  And human nature -- and thus, at least to a large extent, morality -- would be what they are even if, per impossibile, God did not exist (just as the periodic table of the elements would be what it is even if, per impossibile, God did not exist).  This too I have explained at greater length in Aquinas, and in another earlier post.

Scientism undermines morality because, inheriting as it does the early moderns’ “mechanistic” conception of nature (which was defined more than anything else by a rejection of Aristotelian formal and final causes), it rejects the immanent teleology and essentialism necessary to making sense of morality.  If neither human beings nor anything else have any ends toward which they are directed by virtue of their essence, then there can be no objective basis in terms of which to define what is good and bad for us.  (See The Last Superstition for the full story.)  Modern atheism tends toward nihilism, then, not because of its rejection of God per se, but because it is typically grounded in scientism.  

So, to that extent, Rosenberg is in my view correct: If you embrace scientism, then you are committed to nihilism, whether you realize it or not.  Where he goes wrong is in thinking he has given us any good reason to embrace scientism in the first place.  

What more need be said?  Well, a few things.  Though Rosenberg acknowledges that the unavoidability of nihilism is “bad news,” he also thinks it is offset by the “good news” that we are never going to abandon morality anyway, or at least not the common “core” of morality that underlies the different moral systems prevailing in different cultures.  This “core” includes principles like “Protect your children,” “If someone does something nice to you, then, other things being equal, you should return the favor if you can,” ”If you earn something, you have a right to it,” “It’s okay to punish people who intentionally do wrong,” and so forth.  A belief in the truth of this “core morality” has been hardwired into us by natural selection.  The belief is false, but it’s here to stay.  Nor need the liberal worry that this will leave “sexism, racism, and homophobia” intact too.   For it turns out that while all moral claims are equally false, some are more equally false than others.  These politically incorrect attitudes, says Rosenberg, are like suttee, the Hindu caste system, and honor killing in that they result from the combination of “core morality” with “false factual beliefs.”  Correct the latter, and core morality will no longer seem to support the attitudes.  So, ours can be a “nice nihilism,” without a Hobbesian war of all against all, and without even having to abandon “moral progress.”  Don’t worry, be happy!

And this is where Rosenberg suddenly decides that ruthless consistency is perhaps something we needn’t be ruthlessly consistent about.  For how does the purported falsehood of the factual beliefs underlying “sexism, racism, and homophobia” show that we can and should rid ourselves of them, when the purported falsehood of the factual belief underlying “core morality” (viz. the belief that there are intrinsic values) does not show that we can and should rid ourselves if it?  Rosenberg never tells us.  Indeed, what he does tell us only reinforces the suspicion that these politically incorrect moral attitudes are more or less on an evolutionary par with the ones Rosenberg likes:

There are lots of moral values and ethical norms that enlightened people reject but which Mother Nature has strongly selected for.  Racism and xenophobia are optimally adapted to maximize the representation of your genes in the next generation, instead of some stranger’s genes.  Consider the almost universal patriarchal norms of female subordination.  They are all the result of Darwinian processes.  We understand why natural selection makes the males of almost any mammalian species bigger than the females: male competition for access to females selects for the biggest, strongest, males and so makes males on average bigger than females… We also know that in general, there will be selection for individuals who are bigger and stronger and therefore impose their will on those who are weaker -- especially when it comes to maximizing the representation of their genes in the next generation.   (pp. 111-12)

“Homophobia” can be given a similar Darwinian explanation.  So, Rosenberg is faced with a dilemma: He can either say that, natural selection notwithstanding, principles like “If someone does something nice to you, then, other things being equal, you should return the favor if you can” and the like are no more certain to persist in the face of nihilism than “sexism, racism, and homophobia” are; or he can say that, just as natural selection guarantees the stability of the former, so too does it guarantee the stability of the latter.  That is to say, he can either let the political incorrectness along with the parts of “core morality” that he likes stand together, or he can let them fall together.  What he cannot consistently do is make “nice nihilism” nice enough for a liberal to be comfortable with.

Of course, Rosenberg’s book is called The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, not The Egalitarian Liberal’s Guide to Reality.  So it might appear that he can accept this result consistent with his overall position.  But as Rosenberg never tires of reminding us, appearances are deceiving.  For he also allows that:

[T]here is strong evidence that natural selection produces lots of false but useful beliefs.  Just think about religion, any religion.  Every one of them is chock full of false beliefs.  We won’t shake any of them.  There are so many, they are so long-lasting, that false religious beliefs must have conferred lots of adaptive advantages on believers. (p. 111)

But wait: If “core morality” will and should persist despite its purported falseness, why not religion too -- especially if, like core morality, it has been favored by natural selection?  Why “nice nihilism” but not “nice atheism”?  Indeed, Rosenberg will happily allow that the other commonsense beliefs he attacks in his book -- our belief in free will, in the self, the reliability of introspection, the meaningfulness of our thoughts, etc. -- have been favored by natural selection, and are extremely difficult for us to give up.  (Surely it’s even harder to doubt that your choices are free, that the self exists, or that you have meaningful thoughts than it is to doubt the existence of moral truths.)  So why is Rosenberg so keen to stamp them out if he’s happy to allow morality to stand?  Why not “nice hard determinism” and “nice eliminative materialism” too?  

Nor is it merely arbitrary for Rosenberg to chuck out these commonsense beliefs while maintaining core morality.  It is not clear how he can do so coherently.  He tells us that since we have to give up belief in the self and in free will, we will, after all, also have to give up those parts of core morality that presuppose it:

No one ever earned or deserved the traits that resulted in the inequalities we enjoy -- greater income and wealth, better health and longer life, admiration and social distinction, comfort and leisure.  Therefore, no one, including us, has a moral right to those inequalities. (p. 296)

To the charge of being soft on crime, scientism pleads guilty.  According to scientism, no one does wrong freely, so no one should really be punished.  Prisons are for rehab and protection of society only.  To the charge of permitting considerable redistribution of income and wealth, it must also plead guilty, and for the same reasons.  (p. 299)

What survives Rosenberg’s pruning of “core morality” is essentially just the banal observation that:

Most people are nice most of the time, and that includes nihilists.  There is no reason for anyone to worry about our stealing the silver or mistreating children in our care.  As for moral monsters like Hitler, protecting ourselves against them is made inevitable by the very same evolutionary forces that make niceness unavoidable for most of us.  There is nothing morally right about being nice, but we are stuck with it for the foreseeable future.  (p. 144)

Leave aside that we have here yet further instances of sheer caprice on Rosenberg’s part.  (If the parts of “core morality” that presuppose free will and the self can and should disappear after all, why not the others?  Or, again, if the others are allowed to stand despite their falsity, why not let the belief in free will and the self stand as well?)  The deeper problem is that it is hard to see how any moral beliefs at all (and not merely those related to desert and punishment) can possibly survive the abandonment of belief in free will and the self.  Rosenberg’s position boils down to the claim that most people will always continue to accept:

1. You should be nice to people.  

even though they ought, he thinks, also to accept:

2. The idea that you or anyone else “should” do anything is false, you don’t really have a choice in the matter anyway, and there really is no “you” in the first place.

But (1) and (2) are incompatible, and anyone capable of understanding both is also capable of seeing that they are incompatible.  Yet Rosenberg assures us that most people can embrace them both anyway.  This is more hardheaded and scientific than the religious beliefs Rosenberg dismisses as wishful thinking?

As always with Rosenberg, it gets even worse.  Central to his position are the following claims about the epistemological implications of Darwinism:

[T]here is lots of evidence that natural selection is not very good at picking out true beliefs, especially scientific ones.  Natural selection shaped our brain to seek stories with plots.  The result was, as we have been arguing since Chapter 1, the greatest impediment to finding the truth about reality.  The difficulty that even atheists have understanding and accepting the right answers to the persistent questions shows how pervasively natural selection has obstructed true beliefs about reality.  (p. 110)

Natural selection sometimes selects for false beliefs and sometimes even selects against the acquisition of true beliefs.  It sometimes selects for norms we reject as morally wrong.  Therefore, it can’t be a process that’s reliable for providing us with what we consider correct moral beliefs.  (p. 112)

Now the problem here is apparently not obvious to Rosenberg, but I trust that it is obvious to everyone else: If “natural selection is not very good at picking out true beliefs, especially scientific ones,” and indeed if it “sometimes selects for false beliefs and sometimes even selects against the acquisition of true beliefs,” so that “it can’t be a process that’s reliable for providing us with what we consider correct moral beliefs,” then how can we be confident that even science and scientism are correct?  After all, Rosenberg will be the first to tell you that his brain and the brains of every scientist were molded by natural selection no less than the brains of religious believers were.  He will insist that in doing philosophy and science, he and the scientists are only applying whatever meager capacities natural selection imparted to those brains.  So if those capacities were likely to lead us astray with respect to religion, morality, free will, the self, consciousness, meaning, etc., how can we be confident that they are not leading us astray yet again when we develop and test scientific theories and write philosophical books defending scientism?  What non-question-begging reason can be given for supposing that observation, experiment, mathematical modeling, etc. really do give us reliable information about the world and don’t just falsely seem to?  Rosenberg’s only answer is the shit-eating grin he wears in the book’s dust jacket photo.  

(Obviously, the point is related to Plantinga’s “evolutionary argument against naturalism,” but the problem is even worse than the one identified by Plantinga.  Plantinga’s argument seems to require only the claim that natural selection favors fitness alone, which doesn’t necessarily require true beliefs.  Rosenberg’s claim is even stronger than that, though: He maintains that natural selection sometimes positively favors false beliefs and selects against the acquisition of true ones.  So the problem isn’t just that given Rosenberg’s view, Darwinism gives us no reason to think science and scientism are correct; it’s that given his view, Darwinism gives us some reason to think science and scientism are false.)

In short, Rosenberg’s position is an incoherent mess; indeed, we have only begun to see how incoherent it is.  So why bother devoting so much attention to it?  Because Rosenberg gets this much right: If you embrace scientism, you cannot consistently avoid also embracing at least his main, eliminativist conclusions.  And if you still embrace scientism after seeing that, then it isn’t only the opinions of some religious believers that are “faith-based.”
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