Monday, August 8, 2016

Good Without God

Jerry A. Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago. He's also a prominent atheist who has written a book titled Faith Vs. Fact in which he tries to explain why theism is false.

A few years ago he wrote a column for USA Today in which he argued that belief in God is not necessary for one to live a moral life. He complains that:
As a biologist, I see belief in God-given morality as American's biggest impediment to accepting the fact of evolution. "Evolution," many argue, "could never have given us feelings of kindness, altruism and morality. For if we were merely evolved beasts, we would act like beasts. Surely our good behavior, and the moral sentiments that promote it, reflect impulses that God instilled in our soul."
There are three things wrong with this. First, "God-given morality" is not incompatible with evolution. God could be the ground both of moral value and of evolutionary change. The incompatibility is between "God-given morality" and naturalism, the belief that the natural world is all there is.

Second, no one argues that evolution could not, at least in theory, have given us the sentiments Coyne lists. The problem is that if evolution is the source of these impulses then it's also the source of avarice, bigotry, cruelty, etc. Given that evolution has produced all human behavioral tendencies, on what basis do we say that one set of behaviors is good and the other bad? Are we not assuming a standard above and beyond nature by which we adjudicate between behaviors to determine which are right and which are wrong?

Third, if an impersonal, mindless, random process is the ultimate source of these behaviors it can't in any moral sense be wrong to act contrary to them. If moral sentiments are the product of chance chemical happenstance and natural selection there is no non-arbitrary moral value to anything. Right and wrong reduce to subjective likes and dislikes.

Coyne continues his argument:
But though both moral and immoral behaviors can be promoted by religions, morality itself — either in individual behavior or social codes — simply cannot come from the will or commands of a God. This has been recognized by philosophers since the time of Plato.

Religious people can appreciate this by considering Plato's question: Do actions become moral simply because they're dictated by God, or are they dictated by God because they are moral? It doesn't take much thought to see that the right answer is the second one. Why? Because if God commanded us to do something obviously immoral, such as kill our children or steal, it wouldn't automatically become OK.

Of course, you can argue that God would never sanction something like that because he's a completely moral being, but then you're still using some idea of morality that is independent of God. Either way, it's clear that even for the faithful, God cannot be the source of morality but at best a transmitter of some human-generated morality.
Coyne here adverts to the classic Euthyphro dilemma which has been discredited by philosophers for centuries (see here, and here). It's unfortunate that Coyne is unaware of this, but it illustrates the hazard of experts in one field speaking dogmatically on matters in other disciplines.

There's more:
So where does morality come from, if not from God? Two places: evolution and secular reasoning. Despite the notion that beasts behave bestially, scientists studying our primate relatives, such as chimpanzees, see evolutionary rudiments of morality: behaviors that look for all the world like altruism, sympathy, moral disapproval, sharing — even notions of fairness. This is exactly what we'd expect if human morality, like many other behaviors, is built partly on the genes of our ancestors.
Assuming this is correct what makes these behaviors moral or right? If a chimp acted contrary to these tendencies would we think the chimp immoral? Would we call its actions evil or wicked? Why, then, is it evil - if we're nothing more than hairless apes - to torture people or abuse children? We have an aversion to such things, to be sure, but aversion doesn't make something wrong.
And the conditions under which humans evolved are precisely those that would favor the evolution of moral codes: small social groups of big-brained animals. When individuals in a group can get to know, recognize and remember each other, this gives an advantage to genes that make you behave nicely towards others in the group, reward those who cooperate and punish those who cheat. That's how natural selection can build morality.
In other words we should be nice because we've evolved to be nice. This is fallacious. Because we have evolved a certain tendency, if indeed we have, it doesn't follow that we should express that tendency. As mentioned above, we've also evolved the tendency to be selfish and mean and a host of other like behavioral traits. Are these behaviors right just because they've evolved? Should we consider cruelty good because it's an evolved behavior?

Coyne concludes with this thought:
Secular reason adds another layer atop these evolved behaviors, helping us extend our moral sentiments far beyond our small group of friends and relatives — even to animals.
This is silly. Secular reason says no such thing. What secular reason dictates is that I should look out for my own interests, I should put myself first, and, pace Kant, use others to promote my own well-being and happiness. That may entail that I give people the impression that I care about them in order to get them to assist me in my own pursuit of happiness, but people who are of no use to me are of no value to me. Thus, it'd be foolish of me to sacrifice my comforts to help some starving child in some other part of the world who will never be of any use to me. Why, on Coyne's view, is it wrong to refuse such aid to victims of starvation? Atheistic philosopher Kai Nielson stresses this very point:
We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view or that all really rational persons unhoodwinked by myth or ideology need not be individual egoists or amoralists. Reason doesn't decide here. The picture I have painted is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me...pure reason...will not take you to morality.
Secular reason and evolution have no answer to the question why we should help those who are in no position to help us, at least none that doesn't reduce to the claim that helping others just makes us feel good. It's an ugly fact about naturalism that its logic entails such conclusions and either Coyne knows it's ugly and doesn't want his readers to know it, or he has no idea. In either case he should stick to biology.