Thursday, March 26, 2009

BALANCING ON THE EDGE OF THE ABYSS: The shifting foundation of natural law

Is your worldview based upon naturalism? Do you believe that everything within the Universe is simply matter and energy, operating in accordance with mathematical and physical laws? If you believe this, then by default you must believe that everything that takes place within it, including our very thoughts, and nothing more than functions of matter and energy. The brain may be highly-complex matter, to be sure, but our thoughts cannot be anything more than a fractal express of matter and energy. If you believe in naturalism, then the Universe cannot be anything more than this. There is no wiggle room on the subject. If you claim there’s something more, then you’re disagreeing with the bedrock foundations of your worldview, which insists that there isn't. Ideas like morality are nothing more than subjective abstractions. They may serve a valuable purpose, but they cannot be found in the foundation of naturalism.

Here's a small thinking exercise to conduct from within the framework of a naturalist viewpoint. It may at first strike you as absurd, but if you think it through, it will accurately explain the inherent problems with the naturalist worldview. A rock breaks loose from a cliff and falls onto a trail below, striking a hiker on the head and killing him. Has the rock done anything wrong? Of course not. Concepts such as right and wrong don't even apply here, and it would be absurd to even consider them. Every single action that took place within the chain of events leading to the rock falling and striking the hiker was simply matter acting in ways that are in accordance with the physical and mathematical laws that govern the Universe. Now consider this next scenario. A person holds a knife in his hand and stabs another person to death. If you believe that matter is all there is, then the actions of the murderer are nothing more than matter acting in accordance with physical and mathematical laws, but nothing more. The actions taken by the aforementioned matter leading up to the murder may be far more complex than the rock falling off the cliff, but they're still nothing more than fractal expressions of matter. If matter is all there is, then the murderous act absolutely cannot be anything more than this.

If you insist that this act of murder is more than matter acting in accordance with physical laws, then you're stepping beyond the bounds of hard science and the physical and mathematical laws that all matter and energy must follow. When a naturalist insists that the Universe is nothing more than matter and energy behaving in accordance with physical and mathematical laws, then any action that takes place within it cannot be more than a fractal expression of actions taken by matter and energy. But when they insist that a piece of matter such as the brain has a responsibility to behave in a particular way, I have to insist that the naturalist explain why, and also insist that the explanation be scientifically testable. If the naturalist points out that the brain has emergent properties beyond mere functions of matter, and that this piece of matter they call a brain is capable of overriding and manipulating the physical laws that govern it, then they're admitting that there's far more to it than just matter. Yet getting a naturalist thinker to concede this point is nearly impossible.

If there is no God who provides absolutes, then all acts of matter can be viewed as irrational. All thoughts must be irrational as well. Logic and reason become borderless abstractions. If the naturalist insists upon placing values on those actions and thoughts, then they’re not only subjective values, but also irrational ones. When viewed from this perspective, “naturalism cuts its own throat,” as C.S. Lewis once commented. So when a naturalist insists that a particular collection of matter such as a brain, no matter how complex, possesses an inherent responsibility to assess and manipulate its own actions, I must insist otherwise. Naturalism, from its very foundation, makes no such call, and every value or thought considered by a piece of matter such as the brain is ultimately random, irrational, and completely subjective. If the naturalist claims that an act of brutal murder is evil, they violate the foundational structure of their own worldview, which has no use for moral classifications. If you’re a naturalist who has a problem with this concept, please read on. I’ll discuss it more in a moment, and you’ll get to meet a naturalist thinker who’s deconstructed and reduced his worldview down to this same morality-free foundation.

The answer to this question is directly tied into the God versus Naturalism debate. What’s at stake is much, much more than competing theories about our origins. What’s ultimately at stake is the very paradigm for how we should live. One paradigm says that since life is nothing more than a chance assembly of molecules, there is no ultimate purpose, no ultimate authority, and we should be able to live in any manner that suits us. The only “truths” are those that we create as subjective, ever-changing guidelines. These “truths” are never absolute, and can be altered or discarded when we decide something else is more relevant to our current situation. The other paradigm insists that we were created for a purpose by an omnipotent Creator, a super-intelligence that has not only provided us with a moral code stamped upon our consciences, but provided us with permanent, absolute truths by which to live, incontrovertible truths that provide a solid foundation upon which to build civilizations and develop relationships between each other as well as our Creator. As you can see, there’s no wiggle room in either paradigm. There’s no way to blend them. At its foundation, true natural law has no use for God, or anything remotely associated with theism.

If naturalism is true and there is no God, then the points I’ve made here about naturalism are completely valid. Naturalism, by its very nature, makes no demand that we behave in a moral way. Any moral behavior is adopted, subjective, and not grounded in any absolute value system. In spite of this, many atheists hold personal worldviews that conflict with the foundational elements of their own belief system. They insist upon a code of conduct that closely parallels one found within all theistic cultures, rather than one that parallels the “natural order” we find within nature. If we’re nothing but a complex arrangement of matter, if we’re nothing more than another step in a purely natural evolutionary process, then why do we insist on elevating ourselves above the rest of the animal kingdom? What’s wrong with behaving exactly the way animals behave?

If we’re simply a link in an unbroken chain of primates, then there’s nothing remotely logical about the atheists’ insistence that we hold ourselves to a higher standard, or that we behave in a way that’s different from animals. Let natural selection run its course. Let the strong prosper at the expense of the weak. What should we do about those huge populations of starving people, or populations of people subject to oppression, genocide, rape and torture? Absolutely nothing. It’s natural selection at work. If you’re a naturalist thinker striving to be intellectually honest, you should admit that there’s absolutely nothing in the foundation of your worldview that demands you take any action, or even have any passionate feelings on the matter. If you insist otherwise, then you’re succumbing to unnatural theistic influences that have crept into our culture within the past three or four thousand years. You have yet to cast an unflinching eye on the implications of what you believe, and I will suggest that you haven’t yet worked out the principles upon which a purely secular society should be founded.

I spent several years running this argument through my head, always trying to find another way to deconstruct it, but no matter how I approached it, the end result was always the same. I was therefore surprised to finally discover someone else who’d apparently been through exactly the same thought process and arrived at the same conclusions. Even more surprising was the fact that this person was an atheist, and not a theist like me. Peter Singer, a bio-ethicist at Princeton University, has emerged as a lightning rod of controversy in the culture of what’s become known as The New Atheism. Singer is one of those extremely rare naturalist thinkers who fully and completely understands the implications of his worldview. When you strip away all the theistic cultural influences that have ground their way into naturalist thinking over the past two millennia, you arrive at a worldview like Singer’s. His grasp of the implications of naturalistic thought is the most articulate and well-resolved I have ever encountered. He simply sees mankind as another primate evolved from purely natural forces, and therefore suggests we divest ourselves of any influences born from faith and culture, and instead adopt a “natural” set of ethics consistent with behavior we see in other animals. Singer doesn’t stop there, however. Because he believes in a purely natural world without a God, he rejects the idea that human life is sacred, or that all men are created equal, and suggests that women should be able to get abortions at any point in a pregnancy, including the moment of delivery. He goes on to suggest that newborn babies aren’t viable human beings for some time after birth, and believes that it should be legal to kill those babies during the first twenty-eight days of their lives. He also believes that mentally handicapped humans and the aged could also be legally euthanized. They serve no purpose and don’t add anything of value to the gene pool, so why keep them around? Nature wouldn’t tolerate them or protect them, so why should we?

If you’re an atheist and you take offense at Singer’s value system, I will ask you the same questions that Singer might ask you. Why are you offended? From what value system does your offense emerge? If Singer’s premise is true, then the conclusions based upon it are accurate, and they’re a true reflection of an intellectually-honest worldview based upon naturalism. As shocking as I find Singer’s views, I also must admit that I have real respect for the fact that he doesn’t shy away from embracing his well-examined beliefs. He has clearly deconstructed his worldview and cast an unflinching eye on the basic foundation of his beliefs. At no point does he hide behind borrowed values, nor does he waste his time making subjective moral judgments about what’s right and wrong. He sees the world as the result of purely natural forces, and suggests we dispense with subjective moral values and simply live according to the natural order found in the rest of the animal kingdom. If you’re a committed believer in naturalism, then Singer provides the most lucid and honest assessment of that worldview to be found anywhere. Whether or not atheists are willing to embrace it is another matter entirely.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

THE DEVIL'S DELUSION: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions

It's rare that I can find the time to read a book from cover to cover, but that's exactly what I did with this book. I picked it about noon one day and couldn't put it down until I was finished. The subject, in case it's not clear from the title, deals with the rise of militant atheism and its claim that science supports the notion of a God-free universe.

Regardless of your viewpoint, if you appreciate good writing, you'll love Berlinski (or at least be able to acknowledge his deft writing skills). I've been following this entire argument for several years now, and even if you're looking at it as a neutral observer, I would have to give points to Berlinski. Hitchens, Stenger, Dawkins, Harris et. al. have yet to produce an argument that doesn't end by asking us to accept a subjective conclusion. They believe in naturalism simply because they reject the idea that a Creator could exist. I'll be the first to admit that the concept of a super-intelligent agent existing outside of space and time (at least within our four-dimensional world) is difficult to wrap your mind around, but if you put it on the table with naturalism, and simply look for the most logical explanation for the "first cause" behind everything, God makes more sense.

Naturalism can't prove itself in a scientific argument that begins with the Big Bang. Scientific cause cannot be established, and science itself, which can only analyze a universe that operates in accordance with physical and mathematical laws, is of no use in predicting what resides beyond the boundaries of those physical and mathematical laws, or what force gave rise to the Universe in the first place. To do so is to engage in speculation, and any position taken on those speculations is a faith position (and a rather dogmatic one at that).

Using this as the root of his case, Berlinski proceeds to pick apart, with swift cuts, the opposition that has become known as The New Atheism. He does so with a brilliant grasp of the issues, and a deft and witty style that always entertains.

One of the arguments emerging from this new brand of atheists is their defense (yes, I would call it that) of atheistic mass murderers by claiming that although Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin and others were bad men, they certainly never committed their atrocities under the banner of atheism. True enough, says Berlinksi, but they did commit these atrocities because they felt confident that God was not watching and therefore they had no one to answer to. They may not have murdered under the banner of atheism, but their atheism was clearly a major factor in their decision to butcher their fellow human beings without remorse. Berlinski also points out that as the world has grown more secular, it has become a far more violent place, and he supports it with a list of atrocities from the past century. The Inquisition and the Middle Ages are certainly horrible stains upon the mantle of Christianity, but they don't represent the actions of true Christians, who believe and act on the notion that the nature of God is best manifested in our treating others with unconditional love, and treating them as we wish to be treated. Additionally, the sum total of deaths from these events, which covered hundreds of years, still pales in comparison to the 100 million people butchered by the thugs mentioned above.

This is an excellent book, and if you've been following the rise of militant atheism and its clash with faith, this is a book you shouldn't miss. Berlinski, who claims to be a secular Jew, offers a refreshing new outlook on the subject.