Thursday, January 23, 2014

Douthat v. the Materialists

Russ Douthat is a New York Times columnist. Jerry Coyne is a University of Chicago biologist who, like Richard Dawkins, seems to spend more time promoting atheism than doing biology. The two have been engaging in some heady back and forth over the question whether materialism (i.e. the view that everything that exists is made up of material stuff. There's no mind, soul, or God, just atoms and energy) can provide a coherent picture of the world.

In a column at the New York Times Douthat responds to an article by Coyne at the New Republic and argues that Coyne's position is as philosophically shaky as a two-legged stool. Douthat's rebuttal to Coyne is a little long and this is just a portion of it:
What’s striking about [Coyne's] response, though, is the extent to which its own account of the secular, materialist world-picture actually illustrates precisely the problems and tensions that I was talking about, in ways that even a casual reader should find obvious but which Coyne apparently did not. He can see the weak points in a religious argument, but the weaknesses of his own side of the debate are sufficiently invisible to him that his rebuttal flirts with self-caricature.

Let me offer two examples. First, to the idea that the materialist’s purposeless cosmos poses some problems for the liberal view (or any view) of moral and political purpose in human affairs, Coyne responds:
I’m not sure what Douthat means when he says 'cosmology does not harmonize at all' with the moral picture of secularism [i.e. a view of reality that excludes God]. Cosmology doesn’t give one iota of evidence for a purpose or for God. Most of the universe is cold, bleak, airless, and uninhabitable. In fact, such a cosmology harmonizes far better with a secular moral picture than a religious one. Secularists see a universe without apparent purpose and realize that we must forge our own purposes and ethics, not derive them from a God for which there’s no evidence.

Yes, secularism does propose a physical and purposeless universe, and many (but not all) of us accept the notion that our sense of self is a neuronal illusion. But although the universe is purposeless, our lives aren’t. This conflation of a purposeless universe (i.e., one not created by a transcendent being for a specific reason) with purposeless human lives is a trick that the faithful use to make atheism seem dark and nihilistic.

But we make our own purposes, and they’re real. Right now my purpose is to write this piece, and then I’ll work on a book I’m writing, and later I’ll have dinner with a friend. Soon I’ll go to Poland to visit more friends. Maybe later I’ll read a nice book and learn something. Soon I’ll be teaching biology to graduate students. Those are real purposes, not the illusory purposes to which Douthat wants us to devote our only life.
So Coyne’s vision for humanity here is heroic, promethean, quasi-existentialist: Precisely because the cosmos has no architect or plan or underlying purpose, we are free to “forge” our own purposes, to “make” meaning for ourselves, to create an ethics worthy of a free species, to seize responsibility for our own lives and codes and goals rather than punting the issue to some imaginary skygod....And these self-created purposes have the great advantage of being really, truly real, whereas the purposes suggested by religion are by definition “illusory.”

Well and good. But then halfway through this peroration, we have as an aside the confession that yes, okay, it’s quite possible given materialist premises that “our sense of self is a neuronal illusion.” At which point the entire edifice suddenly looks terribly wobbly — because who, exactly, is doing all of this forging and shaping and purpose-creating if Jerry Coyne, as I understand him (and I assume he understands himself) quite possibly does not actually exist at all?

The theme of his argument is the crucial importance of human agency under eliminative materialism, but if under materialist premises the actual agent is quite possibly a fiction, then who exactly is this I who “reads” and “learns” and “teaches,” and why in the universe’s name should my illusory self believe Coyne’s bold proclamation that his illusory self’s purposes are somehow “real” and worthy of devotion and pursuit? (Let alone that they’re morally significant: But more on that below.) Prometheus cannot be at once unbound and unreal; the human will cannot be simultaneously triumphant and imaginary.

It’s true that even if the conscious self is an illusion, human beings would still have purposes in the sense that any organism has purposes, and our movements — all that travel and reading and dining, in Coyne’s case — wouldn’t just be random or indeterminate. But just as nobody would describe a tree growing toward the sun or a bee returning to the hive as “forging their own purposes” in life, so too Coyne’s promethean language about human agency implies a much higher conception of what a human being IS — both in terms of the reality of consciousness and the freedom afforded to it — than his world-picture will allow.
It's a fascinating debate and Douthat has much more to say in his defense at the link, but I'd like to note that there is indeed something peculiar about a materialist like Coyne arguing on one hand that the human self is nothing but an illusory collocation of atomic particles and on the other that there's meaning and purpose to this pile of atoms, or, as he argues in his New Republic column, that the behavior of the clump of matter that is you or I somehow has moral significance.

If Coyne is right, if materialism is true, then biologist E.O.Wilson and philosopher Michael Ruse are loser to the truth than Coyne when they claim in an article they co-authored, that morality "is just an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate" with each other. In other words, the belief that it is really objectively wrong to abuse a child or to rape a woman or to scam the elderly out of their life savings, is, on materialism, simply an illusion. These behaviors have no object moral value at all.

Biologist Will Provine puts it this way: "Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear – and these are basically Darwin’s views: There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death....There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will..."

The materialist's worldview makes for a pretty bleak picture of life if one were to live it consistently. Let me close with a quote from another materialist philosopher Bertrand Russell, who wrote of the view of life he, as an atheistic materialist, embraces:
Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins...