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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Online encyclopedia article on New Atheism

Here's an article on "The New Atheists" in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It's an interesting synthesis, though of course that has its dangers. It's not as if the people who are commonly labeled "New Atheists" form a philosophical school or even that any of them (even Dennett) necessarily has a comprehensive philosophical position. Once you take a hint here from one person, a hint there from another, an implication that one person says X so presumably his allies also think X ... then you'll present a composite picture that is not necessarily true to the beliefs of any one individual.

The criticisms of specific positions are interesting, and some may, I suppose, be fair. However, some are not. It's hardly fair charging someone with "scientism", which is then defined in a paradoxical way by you (not by them) and then claiming that they hold a view that is paradoxical. Someone somewhere may be guilty of a paradoxical epistemological position, such as scientism is supposed to be, but you'd better wait until they actually spell out the view that is supposed to be paradoxical before you accuse them of holding it.

The views from William Lane Craig that are relied on cannot really be used in the way that they are. It's no use saying that theologians see God as having a mind that is simple. The point is that if you start from a position of neutrality, moving in an incremental way from what we've discovered about the world, you will not end up drawing the inference that a simple mind designed something that, ex hypothesi, is incredibly complex. Human beings never see that sort of thing happening. We do, of course, see complexity evolve iteratively via simple mechanisms. However, any designing minds that we see are, in fact, incredibly complex things. If we were to draw the inference that the universe is a designed thing, the product of one or more designing minds, the natural inference to draw is that the designing mind(s) must be unimaginably complex. It may be logically possible that the universe somehow arose from a huge power source attached to a simple mind, but that is not something that we've ever seen, and it is not the sort of inference that we'd draw, based on our actual knowledge, from what we perceive of the universe and have learned about it.

In which case, we would want to know where that mind came from - the only complex designing minds that we've ever encountered are products of evolutionary development over vast tracts of time. So, given the knowledge we actually have, why wouldn't we then speculate that any designer of the universe is most likely also such a product? Either that, or if it was itself designed, why would we not assume that its designer was also unimaginably complex? The point is, William Lane Craig and the encyclopedia author are assuming what they need to demonstrate: that we have some reason to begin by favouring a theological notion of an essentially simple mind with complex contents - but why postulate something like that as the explanation of the universe when we've never encountered anything of the kind?

The discussion of how the New Atheists "must" be moral objectivists is obviously of interest. Perhaps they are. But if, in speaking to you, I criticise some social institution for having destructive consequences I don't thereby assume that having destructive consequences is an objectively bad thing. All I have to assume is that you and I both desire to avoid destructive consequence. If what we want from social institutions is that they not, for example, produce suffering, constrain human choice, and spread ignorance, but, rather, that they ameliorate suffering, empower individuals in various ways, and spread knowledge, then nothing stops us calling religion, or particular religions, "bad". If they are inefficient - indeed counter-productive - for ameliorating suffering, and so on, then we are entitled to make a negative evaluation. More generally, no one has to be committed to the idea of objective values or objective standards to make a negative evaluation of a social institution. We make evaluations against standards that reflect our actual values, goals, and purposes ... as we do all the time with other things.

Moral language may well often contain a claim of some sort of objective requirement or prohibition. That may well be part of the very meaning of some kinds of moral language. But no such claim necessarily lies in a judgment such as, "This is a bad social institution" or "This is a bad law" or "This is a bad political policy." All that's required is a sense of what counts, in the context concerned, as a good or bad social institution, etc., supported by some sharing of values, goals, and purposes.

(And even if someone says, "That was a morally wrong act," she may be using shorthand, or (rightly or wrongly) she may not accept that this means "an objectively forbidden act" ... or there may be other explanations other than that she is committed to moral objectivism.)

Again, it may turn out that the leading New Atheists really are all objectivists, but they needn't be. Even non-cognitivists make judgments of "good" and "bad", for Zeus's sake, and so do crude relativists, and they all offer stories about what it means when they do so. You really can't infer much about someone's metaethical position merely because he or she makes judgments of social institutions being good and bad.


Michael said...

"Since atheism continues to be a highly controversial philosophical position, one would expect that the New Atheists would...spend a corresponding amount of time formulating a case for the non-existence of God"

Wow. Just wow.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Haven't read the whole thing, but . . . Is Dennett really a moral realist? I don't recall him every adopting that position, or any other position in moral philosophy. I remember one interview where he said that he thought the golden rule and such moral principles could be "good tricks" in an evolutionary sense. They could be evolutionarily stable social strategies. But that's not the same as saying they are moral truths, or that they are morally correct. I don't think Dennett has made that mistake.

The article also makes Dennett out to be a theological noncognitivist, which I've also wondered about. While he does flirt very strongly and openly with that position, he doesn't outright embrace it as far as I know. He instead calls himself a "teapot agnostic," which means that he acknowledges the theoretical possibility that a supernatural God exists. I always wanted him to come out as a noncognitivist. If he has done so, great! But I don't think he has.

K said...

"It's no use saying that theologians see God as having a mind that is simple. The point is that if you start from a position of neutrality, moving in an incremental way from what we've discovered about the world, you will not end up drawing the inference that a simple mind designed something that, ex hypothesi, is incredibly complex."
This is what confuses me about theological arguments, I just don't get how they can possibly call a mind simple. When the objections to the Ultimate 747 argument is that God's mind isn't composed of material parts, I'm lost as to what they could possibly be thinking God's mind could be. The only explanation is that they believe in magic.

Now since I'm a layperson with nothing in the way of philosophical training I think it would be somewhat arrogant of me to dismiss it at bullshit, but it really just seems like nothing more than a bare assertion.

Svlad Cjelli said...

Here's a thought. We know that subjective moral standards can run contrary to one another, in an at least partially exclusive manner.
I think we can from this reasonably assume that if there is an unassailably spooky, objective moral standard, it's possible for a subjective standard to contradict the objective one to a significant extent. (Or the objective one would have to allow for several possible contradictory positions.)

Keeping this in mind, posit a world in which there is an absolute, objective moral standard. Maybe it's even discovered, through exhaustive discourse of brilliant minds, gathered around a great, spooky magico-meter, for lack of term.
And posit that all existant subjective moral standards in this world were of the kinds that contradict the objective moral standard to the extent that anything objectively just and good was subjectively perceived as grave and unjust crimes by all subjective creatures concerning themselves with ideas of what's just or unjust, so that terror and sorrow would spread through local populations at any moderately successful attempt to make the world objectively better.