Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Internecine Squabble

Conservative pundits are all atwitter at the rift that has opened in the movement between those who are angry that Christine O'Donnell has won the Republican primary for the senate seat of Joe Biden in Delaware and those who think it's outrageous that so many are pummeling a fellow conservative selected by the people.

The former group argues that the candidate she defeated, a notorious liberal named Mike Castle, was a shoo-in to win the November election, and that O'Donnell, because she has a history of difficulties in her personal finances (who hasn't?) is an almost certain loser. Thus people like Karl Rove, Charles Krauthammer, and The Weekly Standard folks, among others, are angry that GOP voters have diminished their chances of wresting control of the Senate from Harry Reid's Democrats in November by nominating a weak candidate.

The latter group, comprised of people like Michelle Malkin, Sarah Palin and most of the conservative radio talkers argue that whether O'Donnell wins or loses in November, it's time conservatives stopped basing their vote on political expediency and started basing it on principle. It's time to send the good ol' boys at the top of the party that the country doesn't need or want any more RINOs (Republican In Name Only) like Arlen Specter, Olympia Snowe, or Susan Collins.

I'm with the latter group, but not just for the reason stated above. I think O'Donnell can win, I think she's basically a good person who made some bad judgments, and I think her ethical difficulties are less serious than those of the average Democrat in Congress (e.g. Charlie Rangel, Harry Reid, Dianne Feinstein, Al Franken, Maxine Waters, et multi alia). And there's one other thing that I haven't heard many commentators mention: If Mike Castle were elected to the Senate it would not necessarily help Republicans gain control of that body because Castle's ideological home is on the Left. There's a very good chance that he would succumb to efforts to persuade him to jump parties, like Arlen Specter and Jim Jeffords did, and then all that the GOP would have accomplished would be the election of one more liberal Democratic senator.

It's time for Castle's GOP backers to realize that the chances Castle would bolt the party once elected are at least as good as the probability that O'Donnell will lose in November. I'd prefer to take my chances on an O'Donnell win than on Mike Castle staying in the GOP and voting for all of the Democratic party's agenda.

Explaining Naturalism (Pt. II)

This post is Part II (See Part I below) of our look at Alex Rosenberg's paper titled A Disillusioned Naturalist's Guide to Reality. In this section Rosenberg considers whether the universe and life reflect a purposeful design. In other words, is there any purpose to either the cosmos or to human existence? Rosenberg's answer is, no:
[A]ll of the beautiful suitability of living things to their environment, every case of fit between organism and niche, and all of the intricate meshing of parts into wholes, is just the result of blind causal processes. It’s all just the foresightless play of fermions and bosons producing, in us conspiracy-theorists, the illusion of purpose.
He goes on to tackle the question whether morality can exist in a naturalistic world. He titles the section, Nice Nihilism: The Bad News About Morality and The Good News. I quote from it at length because it's unusual to find such an explicit statement of the consequences for morality entailed by atheistic naturalism:
If there is no purpose to life in general, biological or human for that matter, the question arises whether there is meaning in our individual lives, and if it is not there already, whether we can put it there. One source of meaning on which many have relied is the intrinsic value, in particular the moral value, of human life. People have also sought moral rules, codes, principles which are supposed to distinguish us from merely biological critters whose lives lack (as much) meaning or value (as ours). Besides morality as a source of meaning, value, or purpose, people have looked to consciousness, introspection, self-knowledge as a source of insight into what makes us more than the merely physical facts about us. Scientism must reject all of these straws that people have grasped, and it’s not hard to show why. Science has to be nihilistic about ethics and morality.
There is no room in a world where all the facts are fixed by physical facts for a set of free floating independently existing norms or values (or facts about them) that humans are uniquely equipped to discern and act upon. So, if scientism is to ground the core morality that every one (save some psychopaths and sociopaths) endorses, as the right morality, it’s going to face a serious explanatory problem. The only way all or most normal humans could have come to share a core morality is through selection on alternative moral codes or systems, a process that resulted in just one winning the evolutionary struggle and becoming “fixed” in the population.
If our universally shared moral core were both the one selected for and also the right moral core, then the correlation of being right and being selected for couldn’t be a coincidence. Scientism doesn’t tolerate cosmic coincidences. Either our core morality is an adaptation because it is the right core morality or it’s the right core morality because it’s an adaptation, or it’s not right, but only feels right to us. It’s easy to show that neither of the first two alternatives is right. Just because there is strong selection for a moral norm is no reason to think it right.
All this should be pretty disturbing to those atheists who want to hold on to moral obligation while denying any transcendent ground for it. It's also precisely correct given Rosenberg's atheistic starting point.

Thus far Rosenberg has drawn the proper conclusions from his naturalism, but then he says something odd. Having denied any ground for distinguishing between right and wrong, he says this:
This nihilistic blow is cushioned by the realization that Darwinian processes operating on our forbearers in the main selected for niceness! The core morality of cooperation, reciprocity and even altruism that was selected for in the environment of hunter-gatherers and early agrarians, continues to dominate our lives and social institutions. We may hope the environment of modern humans has not become different enough eventually to select against niceness. But we can’t invest our moral core with more meaning than this: it was a convenience, not for us as individuals, but for our genes. There is no meaning to be found in that conclusion.
What does Rosenberg mean here by imposing a value on niceness, cooperation, and altruism? Would someone who was not nice or cooperative be wrong? A naturalist like Rosenberg cannot say he would, nor do I think he would try to say that. Such judgments of moral value are completely unwarranted on naturalism except as expressions of personal taste.

Even more problematic is his claim that evolution has selected "in the main" for niceness, etc. I don't think this is true at all. Certainly this claim runs counter to human experience. There's just as much meanness and cruelty in the world as there is niceness. That being the case, evolution must have selected at least as much for meanness as for niceness, and an atheistic naturalist simply has no grounds for saying that one is right and the other is wrong. The most he can say is that he likes one more than he likes the other, but right and wrong are not established by our likes and dislikes.

More later.