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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