Wednesday, November 28, 2012

People really don't like atheists.

(Originally posted by Pat on 8/31/10)

And to some extent, it's not our fault; Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and A.C. Grayling are always extremely polite and respectful, everything they say is temperate and reasonable, and the only reason people don't like them is that they openly criticize religion on a regular basis. You can't win with some people.
Yet perhaps after all there is something wrong with the way some affirmative atheists speak, and the more reasonable voices may end up seeming guilty by association. (Also, have you noticed we're all White men? Doesn't that seem wrong?)

Sam Harris clearly does have a serious vendetta against Islam in particular; most of his criticisms of Islam are valid, but there's something disingenuous about the way he often fails to point out that so many other religions suffer so many of the same problems. Also, he doesn't have the excuse of being personally harmed by Islam the way Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Salman Rushdie were. (I might be concerned if these latter two didn't have personal vendettas against Islam.)
Christopher Hitchens is a bitter, angry narcissist with serious alcohol and tobacco problems. He does have a sharp wit and a talent for writing style; but his absurd attention-hogging (like when he publicized his pubic waxing, or more recently when he came out as bisexual in the most obnoxious way possible, a salacious memoir) makes it impossible to take him seriously.
P.Z. Myers is a jolly and amicable fellow in person, but on Pharyngula he sometimes comes off as quite rude and aggressive (and more than a little sexually perverse—cephalopodophilia?). Sometimes he seems rather crotchety, as when he criticizes people for enjoying religious holidays. The blog format does lend itself to a certain aggressive style of speech (XKCD: “Someone is wrong on the Internet”), but since this is his main public voice I think he might do well to tone it down a bit.
Beyond the matter of tone (and the fact that for some people “tone” seems like a codeword for “criticizing religion”), I also have some concerns about content as well.
Jerry Coyne clearly doesn't understand compatibilism. He seems to think that determinism is fundamentally opposed to moral responsibility, even though virtually no philosophers still think that. Moreover, determinism is an unsettled question, while free will is a settled one. Among serious philosophers there are still a few libertarians, but there are no fatalists. (If it were really true that determinism was fundamentally inconsistent with moral responsibility, we'd abandon determinism, not moral responsibility!) Coyne doesn't seem to understand that compatibilism is the consensus in the philosophical community (as close as the philosophical community ever comes to a consensus), that the “free will” (human-exclusive, acausal, modal, libertarian free will) he's concerned about is largely discredited as a phenomenon and completely discredited as a necessary requirement for moral responsibility. I for one don't even see how libertarian free will is coherent; but even if it is, it's clearly not real, and it's clearly not necessary for moral responsibility.
Indeed, I think that libertarian free will would be more problematic for moral responsibility; it would imply that people's actions are motivated by something other than their character, their experiences, their physiology, and their consideration of the consequences. There would have to be something else (what that would be has never been clearly articulated), and then, how could we get at it in order to modulate it for social good?
So Coyne is a biologist who doesn't understand philosophy. So what, right? Surely plenty of philosophers don't understand biology. (I think Dennett is one of the rare few who do!) Well, the problem is that philosophy, more even than biology, is really important. It is fundamental to who we are and how we ought to live our lives. And so, one really shouldn't pronounce upon these issues if one does not really understand them, for the harm caused by misunderstanding can be enormous. Keynes pointed out that self-styled “pragmatic” men are typically slaves to defunct economists; I would add that they are also often slaves to defunct philosophers.
Imagine if the majority of society really did become convinced that moral responsibility is an illusion. What would happen? I must imagine that people would begin stealing, raping, and killing with reckless abandon. Why shouldn't they? Indeed, if it's really true that moral responsibility is an illusion, we can't even say that this outcome would be bad; it's just one that our programming happens not to prefer. Happy those lucky few whose brains innately enjoy chaos and death! (One of the few parts of the film Pandorum I actually enjoyed was the climactic conversation at the end in which the villain tries to argue that this precisely what we ought to think.)
I got into a heated argument a few days ago at a CFI gathering with someone who professed to be a nihilist; he insisted that there is no true rationality, only arbitrary presumptions; no objective reality, only illusions; and no moral right, only biological imperatives and social conventions. If a majority of people became convinced of such a view, again I imagine that violent chaos would be the result.
I could be wrong; maybe people could come to apathetically accept a meaningless existence and continue to act morally just because they felt like it. For all I know, maybe people would suddenly become great humanitarians in the face of their meaningless, amoral existence. But precisely what worries me is that fatalists and even more so, nihilists cannot coherently argue that this is a better outcome. They can argue that it is more likely (which is an empirical claim that could be tested based on experiments and historical data), or even that they would prefer it—but they can't argue that it would be better. Yet it is more obvious to me that peace is better than war than it is that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and I would sooner reject the latter than the former. So why should I listen to people who tell me that scientific facts (epistemic value 0.9999) outweigh fundamental normative truths (epistemic value 0.999999999)?
Moreover, what I really don't understand is how you can justify saying these things are true if in fact you think they are true. (You can justify saying them if they are false but you can serve some higher end by lying about them—imagine preventing a terrorist attack by lying about philosophy.) Why bother with the truth? Why concern yourself with honestly reflecting your beliefs? The fatalist can at least say, “Well, I can't help it; my programming insists that I be honest”; but the reply could be “Well, my programming insists that I not believe you”. Worse, what can the nihilist offer? Even worse, why should I be motivated to accept your claims as true? If you seriously abandon all normativity, you have abandoned the basis of not only morality, but science as well.
Now, it is often suggested by religionists that atheism leads inevitably to this sort of violent chaos, which I of course do not believe. And so it might be argued that I have the same prejudiced view toward fatalism and nihilism that others have toward atheism.
But in fact, I think the problem is precisely that most people don't understand the difference between atheism and other philosophies, including fatalism and nihilism. Many religious people seem to think that once one abandons God, one similarly must abandon morality, truth, and meaning. And if that were indeed true, I could completely understand not wanting to abandon God!
And I guess what bothers me is that atheists aren't helping. When atheists talk as if a rational worldview entails that free will is an illusion, moral responsibility is meaningless, life is worthless and morality is a fiction, they are only reinforcing the prejudice that atheists are amoral, heartless scum.
Now, if it were serious philosophers making these arguments, I would have to listen. But not since David Hume has a serious philosopher actually argued for skeptical rejection of moral responsibility—and even he ultimately rescinded this view. The closest I can think of is Richard Joyce, but at least as yet he remains obscure, and I think precisely because he's clearly wrong and other philosophers realize this.
People who argue that free will is an illusion or that morality is a fiction are invariably students of philosophy, or experts in other fields (like biology in Coyne's case). Now, the same charge could be leveled against me; but I'm agreeing with the mainstream consensus of the philosophical community. I think the one who challenges the experts is the one who has the burden of proving their credentials (XKCD once again: ). Moreover, this is not the only reason I think you're wrong; I've just given plenty of other reasons.

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