Saturday, 12 January 2008

Morality, mirror neurons and the "new atheism"

A common criticism of the so-called “new atheists” (who I prefer to call the "new anti-dogmatists") is the “problem of morality”: How, many religious critics ask, can we be good without God? Isn’t the fact that people are good, that people can tell good from evil, evidence for the existence of God? Even if God is a myth, isn’t He necessary to inspire people to acts of goodness and to keep them from falling into immorality? And in any case, don’t we get our morals from our religious traditions?

A key problem here is that this “good without God” criticism is really at least five different arguments jumbled together.

The argument from scripture
First comes the argument from scripture: “How can we know what's good without a book of rules, like the Bible?” This is the one that Richard Dawkins so ably rebuts with his "cherry picking" point in his recent best-seller, The God Delusion. The Bible is full of horrible acts and recommendations. It also contains some very kind and good acts and rules. Most Christians don't follow the former any more, but continue to follow the latter. How do they chose? What do they use to “cherry pick” the Bible in this way? It's not something in the Bible, it's something in the reader. If this moral sense exists in us and allows us to pick the good bits of the Bible from the bad, what do we need the Bible for except as one among many anthologies of moral propositions on which to practice our moral sense?

The platonic argument
Secondly, there's the Platonic “by what standard” argument: “Granted we have an innate moral sense, but how can we know what's right and wrong if there is no absolute standard of right in the universe?”, says the theist, “Doesn't our ability to recognise that some acts are good and others evil imply that there must somewhere exist a perfect thing of goodness to be the standard? Doesn't our moral sense itself act as evidence of the existence of God?”

Here the error is epistemological: Of course we can judge degrees of something even though a perfect sample of that something does not really exist. Nowhere in reality is there such a thing a perfectly straight line. Yet we are easily able to judge and even rank the straightness of connections between two points in the real world with relative ease – this hand drawn line on this piece of paper is straighter than that one, this rooftop is straighter than that one, the path of this meteor is straighter than that one, etc.

The argument from the mysterious origin of morality
The third argument is related to the second, the “origins of morality” point: “Granted we have a moral sense, but where did that come from?” say the critics, “It can’t have evolved, because it often gets us to do things that aren't selfish, even in the sense of enlightened selfishness.”

This argument misunderstands the neo-Darwinian insight popularised in Professor Dawkins’ 1976 book, The Selfish Gene: We are genuinely altruistic because our genes are “selfish”. A gene that causes its carriers to be genuinely altruistic will have a reproductive advantage if its carriers live in groups of largely related individuals. By risking its life for the group because of the genuine altruism given to it by the gene, one carrier of that gene will increase the reproductive chances of other carriers of the same gene. (The selfish gene explanation also works for groups where the same non-relatives regularly interact and can engage in “reciprocal altruism”.)

Evolution has given us what Dawkins calls a “lust to be good”, much in the way it has given us a lust to have sex (we’re “horny to do good,” as one interviewer put it recently). Does this mean that altruism only makes sense if it’s for relatives? Only in the sense that sex only “make sense” when it’s done for procreation – or that love only “make sense” if it’s being used to solidify a pair-bond for the twenty or so years needed to help the survival of offspring. The evolutionary explanation for an urge is not the same thing as a justification for why we should, as rational creatures, promote or fight that urge today.

Mirror neurons and moral progress
Recent research by neuroscientist such as VS Ramachandran and Marco Iacoboni have discovered what are being called “mirror neurons”. When a monkey experiences pain from, say, being kicked in the testicles, several neurons can be observed to fire in his brain. But if the monkey observes another monkey being kicked in the testicles, a few (not all) of those same neurons fire in the observing monkey’s brain.

It seems mirror neurons evolved as the means by which primates learn skills from each other: observe the other primate doing the skill, feel which mirror neurons fire, then try to make the same mirror neurons fire by doing the action – repeat, refine, learn skill. One side effect was empathy, the ability to feel the pain and pleasure of others (another side effect, according to some researchers, may have been the development of consciousness itself).

It appears that this new capacity for empathy allowed altruism to develop, and that mutation propagated because of the reproduction-enhancing properties of altruism discussed by Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. But from the gene's perspective, altruism is a two edged sword: it’s great if your carriers sacrifice themselves for other carriers, but it’s horrible if your carriers start sacrificing themselves for non-carriers. The solution seems to have been the “taming” of the empathy/altruism characteristic by the evolution of in-group vs out-group thinking. What evolved (one suspects both genetically and culturally) was a distinction between the in-group, where empathy was appropriate (and whose members were likely to carry many of the same genes); and out-groups, where empathy was blocked or even turned into its dark twin antipathy – the tendency of animals to feel the pain of others and enjoy it.

(Though I haven't read it yet, the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker has recently published what looks to be a very interesting article on our "Moral Instinct". I may blog about it in a later post.)

The story of moral progress seems to me to be the story of the marriage between our evolved capacity for empathy and our evolved capacity for reason. As we apply our reason to our urge to be altruistic, and as we become more interconnected with strangers, we see fewer reasons to put people into the “out group”. Our psychological “in group” expands until in some people it covers not just the whole human race, but sentient non-human animals too. Of course there are gradations. Seeing my wife happy gives me more pleasure (and seeing her in pain causes me more suffering) than seeing a stranger I admire happy (or in pain). And an admired stranger’s happiness matters more to me that that of a stranger I’ve never even heard of (though I still feel bad when I witness or hear of such a stranger suffering). But most of us in the liberal democratic West have very few people in our “out-group” – and we tend to feel ashamed about feeling that way even about them.

The role of religion in moral progress
"But," asks the fourth version of the "good without God" criticism, "hasn't religion in general, and Christianity in particular, been the context in which this moral development has occurred?" And the fair answer is yes, religion in general (and Christianity in particular) has helped enormously. Just as alchemy made many discoveries that were built on by chemistry and astrology made some discoveries that were built on by astronomy (mostly in the field of cataloguing astral bodies, but still useful discoveries); Christianity made or widely propagated several moral innovations that modern secular moral philosophy has built upon (similar claims can be made for Buddhism). Not for nothing did Richard Dawkins once write an article entitled “Atheists for Jesus”.

But religion has also contaminated the stream with some very strange and unfounded ideas. Just as there is no evidence that one can turn lead into gold and there is no evidence that the movements of the planet Venus affect my destiny; there is no evidence that there is a “soul” that enters the human zygote at conception, or that there is an afterlife in which kindness is rewarded and cruelty is punished. And it is religions’ reliance on the dogma of faith that makes it so hard to use reason to sort the good ideas from the bad.

The sanction argument
This, of course, leads us to the fifth argument of the theistic "problem of morality" critic, the sanction argument: “Why be good if there's no comeuppance in the afterlife?”

This argument seems to say that people would be evil if they did not fear punishment in hell or that they would not help their fellow humans without the hope of a pay-off in heaven. Aside from being questionable theology even in its own terms, the sanction argument reveals a very dim view of human nature. Many humanists simply believe human beings are better than that and, on average, getting better all the time – that we are, as someone once said, “rising apes rather than fallen angels.”

Moreover, the argument that people would be horrible without belief in God seems to have been falsified by the experience of organically atheist societies such as Sweden. As I wrote in a previous post:

When polled, over 80% of Swedes say they don't believe in God and over 40% explicitly identify themselves as atheists. Yet Sweden has some of the lowest crime, poverty, STD and teenage pregnancy rates in the world. It is a functioning liberal democracy with very little social unrest and a near 100% literacy rate. And while Sweden is the extreme, similar figures associating atheism with societal health can be found in most of the countries of western Europe as well as in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Moreover, even in the heavily religious United States of America, the more religious a State is (measured by church attendance), the higher its rates of crime, divorce, STD infection and teenage pregnancy tend to be.

Of course, the fact that widespread atheism doesn't lead to social chaos still leaves open the question of why it doesn't. But the neuroscience and evolutionary arguments put above do suggest that humans are more innately good than many religious people would credit.

For my part, I think the answer here was provided by the ancients – virtue or self-respect. (And isn’t it interesting that "virtue ethics" is making a comeback in academic philosophy?) We judge the acts of others, and think well or ill of them as a result. But we also do the same of ourselves. Self-hatred is actually a rather nasty psychological torture and an important part of mental health is having a good reputation with oneself. We can gain a good reputation with others either by actually being good, or by tricking others into believing we are good. But with our reputations with ourselves, the latter course involves a level of self-deception that is itself mentally unhealthy.

Good deeds, it seems to me, really are their own reward.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

"New atheism" or "new anti-dogmatism"?

A lot has been written recently about a group of best-selling authors that, back in November 2006, Wired Magazine dubbed "the new atheists". Principally they are the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), the neuroscientist Sam Harris (The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation), the philosopher Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell) and, more recently, the journalistic pugilist Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great and The Portable Atheist). In his typically irreverent style, Hitchens has dubbed himself and the other three the "Four Horsemen of the Counter Apocalypse".

These authors have not just sold a lot of books (over 1.5 million for the English language edition of The God Delusion alone, according to Dawkins). They've written media articles and appeared on chat shows and in public debates. Dawkins runs a website with a lot of traffic and has started a charitable foundation in the US and the UK. Harris has smaller, but similar projects. Google any of their names or the phrases "new atheist" or "new atheism" and you'll see a torrent of arguments, for and against. The new atheists are clearly trying to start and sustain an intellectual movement.

For the most part, I support them.

What’s in a name?
I say “for the most part” because my differences with them are primarily matters of emphasis and terminology. One of my problems is with the term “atheism” itself - a problem Sam Harris himself has pointed out. But the problem I want to talk about here is the “new atheists’” habit of conflating religion with faith.

It seems to me that the real target of the "new atheists" isn't religion as such. Indeed they all indicate that they have little or no problem with most forms of deism, or Spinozaian pantheism or what Dawkins calls "Einsteinien religion". And at least Harris, Dennett and Hitchens have indicated that they wouldn't necessarily want to see the synagogues, churches and mosques emptied, though they would want to see them abandon what Harris calls their “metaphysical bullshit” (see this video towards the end).

It seems to me that the so-called new atheists' real problem isn’t with religion as such, but with dogma, and specifically with the dogma of religious faith - with the belief that it is acceptable, even admirable, to believe propositions without logically sound reasons based on good evidence. If I'm right, they aren't really the "new atheists" at all, they are the "new anti-dogmatists". And if I'm wrong, then the part of their thought I subscribe to is that part I'm calling anti-dogmatism.

So, what's the problem with dogma?
The forms that dogmatically believed propositions can take are potentially infinite. One might dogmatically believe in the historical inevitability of a communist utopia, under which the State will wither away, after a brief but necessary period of a dictatorship of the proletariat. Or one might dogmatically believe in the existence of something called the Aryan race, in its inherent superiority to all other races, and in the inherent inferiority and perfidy of the Jewish race. Or one might dogmatically believe that the Creator of the universe called one's religion to convert the world or take it by force through holy war, that death in the defence of (or attempt to reconquer) lands so acquired is the greatest of all actions, and that such martyrs will go to paradise after they die to be attended by 72 virgin brides and joined in due course be all their family and loved-ones. Or one might dogmatically believe that the creator of the universe condemns condom use as a sin.

What all four of these beliefs have in common is that there is very little or no evidence for them and there is much evidence against them. Yet all four beliefs have at times been passionately believed and acted upon by otherwise rational, sane and civilised people – often resulting in those people performing some of the most irrational, insane and barbaric acts imaginable. The physicist Steven Weinberg has said that, left alone, “you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” If you change the word “religion” to “dogma” or “faith” you have my view – and the view I suspect people like Weinberg, Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris are really getting at.

Thankfully, fascist, Nazi and Communist dogmas have been so discredited that almost no-one believes them any more. That is a development to be celebrated. But as the events of New York and Washington DC and Bali and Madrid and London demonstrate; as demonstrated by the genocidally stupid anti-contraceptive policies of the Catholic church in Africa and the homicidally stupid stem-cell policies of Christian churches in the US; religious dogmas are alive and kicking and at work in the world today.

Reason and evidence and empiricism and science and liberal democracy – in short, the forces of the Enlightenment – have discredited Communist and Fascist dogmas. Now, say Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, it is time for them to do the same to the dogmas of religious faith.

Isn’t atheism just as dogmatic and bad?
At this point, a committed theist might say that there is something about atheism that leads to barbarism, immorality and dictatorship. He or she might even say that there is something about atheism that leads to the dogmatism that I and the "new anti-dogmatists" decry. But any theist who said that would have to explain the inconvenient fact that some of the most civilised, liberal and prosperous nations in the world are “atheistic”, in the sense that a majority of their populations do not believe in God.

Take Sweden. When polled, over 80% of Swedes say they don't believe in God and over 40% explicitly identify themselves as atheists. Yet Sweden has some of the lowest crime, poverty, STD and teenage pregnancy rates in the world. It is a functioning liberal democracy with very little social unrest and a near 100% literacy rate. And while Sweden is the extreme, similar figures associating atheism with societal health can be found in most of the countries of western Europe as well as in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Moreover, even in the heavily religious United States of America, the more religious a State is (measured by church attendance), the higher its rates of crime, divorce, STD infection and teenage pregnancy tend to be. (See the footnote * below for references to support these claims.)

Clearly, a widespread disbelief in God is not incompatible with a healthy, happy, prosperous and civilised society. (Note I do not claim here that atheism has caused these wonderful societies to be so wonderful. I cite these facts merely to show that atheism is compatible with social harmony. I'll write more about the link (or not) between morality and religion in a later post.)

So, what is the difference between the slaughterhouses built by the Godless Communists of Russia and China and the civilized liberal polities built by the Godless progressives of Western Europe and elsewhere? The obvious answer is that Western European countries are liberal democracies committed to science and empiricism and reason and freedom of speech and debate; whereas Soviet Russia and Red China clearly were not. It was not its atheism per se, but the illiberalism, the undemocratic nature, the dogmatism of Communism that made it the architect of so much twentieth century horror.

Towards Enlightenment 2.0?
Back in 2006, the Science Network organised a conference called "Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival". Dawkins, Harris and Weinberg were there in force and, while there was much disagreement between these three and some of the others participants (most notably between Harris and the anthropologist and scholar of Islamic terrorism, Scott Atran), the conference was something of a coming out party for the "new atheism". Last year the Science Network organised a similar conference, this time entitled "Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0". On the significance of the title, Roger Bingham, the director of the Science Network and organiser and MC of both conferences wrote:

As you watch the conversation in Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0, it might help to know about one of the sources that was helpful to me in formulating the agenda, assembling the cast of characters, and setting the tone for the meeting. I quoted this passage from Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century by Jonathan Glover (who directs the Centre of Medical Law and Ethics at King's College, London):

"Now we tend to see the Enlightenment view of human psychology as thin and mechanical, and Enlightenment hopes of social progress through the spread of humanitarianism and the scientific outlook as naïve...One of this book's aims is to replace the thin, mechanical psychology of the Enlightenment with something more complex, something closer to reality...another aim of the book is to defend the Enlightenment hope of a world that is more peaceful and humane, the hope that by understanding more about ourselves we can do something to create a world with less misery. I have qualified optimism that this hope is well founded..."

I say Amen to that. If Enlightenment 1.0 took a thin and mechanical view of human nature and psychology, I think Enlightenment 2.0 can offer a much 'thicker' and cognitively richer account - less naïve and also, perhaps, less hubristic. If there's one thing we've learned - particularly from cognitive neuroscience - it is that we need to have some strategic humility about the hobby horses we are inclined to ride.

If the first "Beyond Belief" conference was about the need for a New Enlightenment, the second was a discussion of why this "Enlightenment 2.0" needs to be an improvement on the first. This was not, as some have suggested, a rebuke to the "new anti-dogmatists". Indeed, much of what was discussed had already been analysed in parts of the new anti-dogmatists books that their critics have often glossed over.

And that's one of the most interesting things about the new anti-dogmatists, that they aren't robotic automatons, determined to reduce the world to steel and chromium. Dawkins has written with such wonder and poetry about the natural world in books like Unweaving the Rainbow that he's been referred to as a "deeply religious non-believer" (and he is the man, after all, who once wrote an article entitled "Atheists for Jesus"). Hitchens waxes lyrical about the beauties of religious music and art, but insists we separate the transcendent from the supernatural. Dennett's Breaking the Spell devotes a great many pages to examining and praising the community-building and altruism-sustaining qualities of religious institutions.

Most radical of all, Sam Harris is a former seeker, a man who spent ten years in meditation retreats and with yogis and monks (including a stint as a bodyguard for the Dalai Lama). In the last chapter of The End of Faith Harris argues that there really is something worthwhile and wonderful about the mystical experiences that lie at the root of most of our religions. These experiences are real and important - but the truth about them is buried beneath mountains of metaphysical bullshit. Harris extols the virtues of the contemplative disciplines at the same time as he is withering in his criticism of the ancient theology and modern "New Age" waffle that so often goes with them. What we need , argues Harris, is to take a ruthlessly logical and scientific approach to these ancient disciplines, to separate the wheat from the chaff.

One little-noted possibility raised by this new movement is that it might bring together the two disparate meanings of the term "enlightenment" - the flowering of science and reason of 18th century Europe and the state of eudemonia described by the Buddha and others. This is a project where rationalists like Dawkins might join in common cause with ultra-liberal theologians like Bishop John Shelby Spong. This isn't a call for misty-eyed live-and-let-live compromise. Far from it. To get at the common core of truth that lies within both meanings of the word "enlightenment" we need to be ruthless with obscurantism - whether it comes from orthodox theology, post-modern philosophy, new age silliness or naive "Enlightenment 1.0" psychology.

The baby and the bathwater
But, and here I return to my terminological criticism, this "spiritual" side to the new anti-dogmatism is not helped by the conflation of the terms "religion" and "faith". Dennett, as one would expect from a professional analytical philosopher, has been by far the least sloppy in his use of the terms; but he is also the most subtle and least read of what Hitchens has the "Four Horsemen of the Counter-Apocalypse". Harris can slide between the terms "faith" and "religion", but his sophisticated treatment of mysticism and spirituality makes it clear that his real target is the dogma of faith. Dawkins and Hitchens are the two who most often conflate religion and faith in their use of language - and they are also the two most well known of the "Horsemen". In my view, this is unfortunate. As Dennett points out at length in Breaking the Spell, religions are social institutions that are very effective at providing community and solidarity as well as spirituality. They needn't be based around dogmas or faiths.** By being sloppy in their language, I fear the new anti-dogmatists are driving away many potential supporters.


*On the claims re Sweden, etc, see P Zuckerman, "Atheism: Contemporary Numbers and Patterns" in M Martin (ed), Cambridge Companion to Atheism (Cambridge University Press, UK, 2006) at 47-64, esp at 56, 57-59 summarised here and here (Zuckerman distinguishes between what he calls "organic atheism" which has emerged from within, such as in Sweden; and "coercive atheism" which has been imposed from above, such as in North Korea); GS Paul, "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies", Journal of Religion and Society, vol 7, summarised here; regarding the comparison between US States, see S Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf, USA, 2006) at 44-45 and the sources cited there.

**Though Dennett does also point out that non-faith-based religions may not be as good at attracting adherents as their faith-based competitors. If true, this decline in reasonable religion along with unreasonable religion may well be a necessary evil. However, on my reading, Dennett is hopefull that this need not be the case.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

An introduction

I’ve been thinking about starting a blog for some time, but being a terrible vacillating procrastinator, I’ve only now decided to make the plunge.

The thing that has pushed me to do it now has been my recent fascination with what the media is calling the “New Atheism” but which, for reasons outlined in an entry I’ll post soon, I prefer to call the "New Anti-Dogmatism". I’ve been posting about this stuff on various message boards for some time now. A couple of times I’ve thought about submitting articles to newspapers and magazines for publication. The compromise I’ve decided upon is this blog as a place where I can get my opinions off my chest.

That isn’t to say that this blog is only going to be about the “New Anti-Dogmatism”. Other things I plan to “get off my chest” are comments on the legal developments here in Australia and overseas, political issues both Australian and international (another one of my current fascinations is with the upcoming US presidential election) and reviews of books and articles I’ve read. I also have an interest in the sort of “life-hacky” stuff you can see over at places like 43 folders.

I’ve activated the comments function on the blog and I welcome comments and discussion. I’ll be especially grateful if people can point to other books or articles on issues I post on, including (perhaps especially) sources that put a different view to my own. If you think I’m wrong, tell me why. At worst my views will be sharpened by the process of rebutting you, at best, I may change my mind (it’s happened before).

And the title? Fans of the science-fiction and fantasy writer Roger Zelazny should be able to get the reference...