Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Logical Mind

It's hard to keep up with all the terrible arguments being introduced into the public square by today's atheists, but one does what one can. I recently came across a particularly unfortunate example in the British DailyMail by Andrew Alexander. He begins his column with this lede:

With Rome and Canterbury at loggerheads over doctrinal trivialities - in reality over power - now is a good moment to make a heartfelt plea for atheism. For those of us who embrace that view, it seems the only position for the logical mind.

Mr. Alexander then goes on to explain that because Charles Darwin sailed to the Galapagos, because there are exegetical problems with the Gospels, because some popes did bad things, and because pagans had stories about gods coming back to life, therefore we may safely conclude that Christianity is false. Perhaps that's how a logical mind works, I don't know, but Mr. Alexander's conclusion seems to me to be far grander than his premises warrant.

But let's pause for a moment to ask Mr. Alexander how he happens to come by the logical mind which he is so pleased to put on display for our benefit.

Presumably by "logical mind" he is referring to the ability to draw rational inferences, but I wonder if it ever occurred to him that if naturalism (the view that nature is all there is) is true then rationality is not only inexplicable, it's pretty much untrustworthy.

If naturalism is true then our minds are the product of non-rational processes that shaped us to survive life in the stone age, but, we should ask, how do non-rational processes like chance, natural selection, genetic mutation and the laws of physics produce a rational mind? How does the rational arise from the non-rational? Regrettably, Mr. Alexander doesn't even seem to be aware of the problem, much less offer an answer to it.

Suppose, though, that rationality somehow did manage to appear among early Homo sapiens. If so, our minds would have been selected for by evolution to aid our survival, not necessarily to discover truth, particularly metaphysical truth. Our minds are just as likely to hold false beliefs as true ones as long as the false beliefs have survival value.

Thus we have no reason to think that our beliefs, especially those which do not lend themselves to empirical verification, like our belief in naturalism, for example, are true, or that our reason is trustworthy. Indeed, in order to argue that reason is trustworthy we have to employ our reason, and thus we have to assume that reason is trustworthy in order to argue that it is trustworthy. This may seem perfectly sensible to Mr. Alexander's logical mind, but it sounds like a circular argument to me.

Mr. Alexander goes on:

Atheism is scepticism in its highest form; and without scepticism you cannot properly understand the way of the world.

If it is true that atheism is the highest form of skepticism wouldn't it be the case, then, that to be skeptical of atheism would be the greatest form of skepticism of all? Is Mr. Alexander skeptical of atheism? If not, why not?

Naturally enough, devout Christians find atheism shocking.

No, I don't think that's true. Christians find atheism sad, perhaps, or pathetic, or desperate, or intellectually destitute, but I doubt many thoughtful Christians are shocked by it. We see it too often to be shocked.

Without religion, the human race, being what it is, will work out its own rules for right and wrong. The Greeks were doing it rather well before Christ.

Well, maybe, but many Greeks rooted their morality in the will of the gods. Their moral authority was something beyond themselves. Others, like Aristotle, embraced a kind of virtue ethics which reduces essentially to subjectivism. He believed we should behave virtuously, but not only could he give no satisfactory answer to the question why the virtues are obligatory upon us and the vices are not, he couldn't even give us a principle by which we can reliably identify the virtues. It turns out that what is virtuous is relative to what a society, or individuals in a society, think it is, but if this is so morality is purely a matter of social consensus, like women's fashion.

The fact is that any attempt to develop an ethics rooted in a naturalistic worldview is doomed to founder on the shoals of subjectivism: What's right is what feels right to me. What's right is what works for me. What's right is whatever makes me happy. Those are the rules that the human race works out for itself when it rejects God. "Look out for #1" is the common expression of the rules, and concern for others at the expense of oneself makes no sense, either in ethical or evolutionary terms.

It may be that there is no God, but if one such as Mr. Alexander really believes this then let's have no flummery from him about how we can all be moral anyway, as if we had any idea at all what that means in a world without God.

I'm surprised someone as logical as Mr. Alexander doesn't see the problem.


Will We or Won't We?

Now that Honduras has held an election, and the winner has been declared we wonder whether the U.S. will recognize the new government.

Earlier, Brazil and Argentina said they would not recognize the election results. Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica said they would accept them.

U.S. officials have indicated the election is a key step forward for Honduras, but they have not said whether they will accept the outcome.

Perhaps the better question is how the Obama administration can not recognize the new government in Honduras, even if he thinks that the whole process was unjust. After all, he offered congratulations to the thugs in Iran following their sham of an election and the popular uprising it ignited. Why would he scruple to withhold his imprimatur from the freely-elected new Honduran government? Will President Obama now side with the people of Honduras as he clearly failed to do in Iran? Or will he continue to express his dudgeon over the Hondurans' removal from office of a man, Manuel Zelaya, whose leftist proclivities Mr. Obama finds congenial?

The new President of Honduras is Porfirio Lobo a wealthy rancher who narrowly lost to Zelaya four years ago. Zelaya, a leftist in the mold of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, was removed from office on charges of treason and abuse of power. The removal precipitated international condemnation of what was incorrectly portrayed, even by our own state department, as a military coup.

Zelaya is currently living in the Brazilian embassy to avoid arrest by the Honduran authorities, but now that the people of Honduras have spoken perhaps Mr. Obama will invite him to take up residence in the White House.