Old Business: Atheists in Foxholes
Old Business: Atheists in Foxholes
On April 15th, in a posting called “Standing Up to Bigotry”, I wrote that I wanted to see the phrase “there are no atheists in foxholes” to be treated like the bigoted slam that it is – and I gave the moral argument for that position.
Austin Cline has information on another use of this denigrating and demeaning phrase. I wanted to bring the incident to your attention today, in the hopes that you will write to The News and Observer and express your disapproval of this bigotry. Austin Cline has the contact information in his posting.
New Business: Sam Harris: Morality and Religion
The first speaker on the third and last day of Beyond Belief 2006 was Sam Harris, who was introduced on the first day of the conference.
Side note: For those who wish to view the Beyond Belief 2006, all sessions have two options; a ‘view’ option and a ‘download’ option. For this, the 9th out of 10 session, the ‘view’ option has 1 hour and 27 minutes of additional content.
Anyway, today, Harris wishes to talk about the relationship between religion and morality. He starts off by claiming that the way some theists defend their specific religion is to say that, even if religious beliefs are false, they are still useful. We get both morality itself (a set of ideas on what is right and what is wrong) and our motivation to do the right thing (to serve God, to enter heaven, to avoid hell) from religion. If we get rid of religion, we have no motivation to do the right thing. Plus, even if some of us were still motivated to do the right thing, atheism gives us no ‘right thing’ for us to do.
This fear of a society without morality then motivates people not only to promote religion, but to view religious people as the only ‘safe’ neighbors to have (or the only ‘safe’ legislators to elect), and promotes an overall fear and hatred of atheists as dangerous and immoral. People are afraid of a society without God and religion.
Harris makes so many mistakes in this presentation that I simply cringe in frustration just to hear him speak. It is the same when I hear Richard Dawkins discuss morality, as I wrote about in “Morality and the Selfish Gene”
Useful Does Not Imply True
We can throw out the second half of Harris’ presentation. There, he argued that the fact that a belief is useful does not imply that it is true. This is certainly true. However, it does not address the issue of defending religion because it is useful. Yes, it is true that the usefulness of a belief does not imply that it is true. However, a useful but false belief is still useful.
Happiness and Suffering
In the first half of his talk, Harris attempted to argue that there are reasons for being moral that have nothing to do with religion. He specified two reasons for being moral; happiness and the avoidance of suffering.
I argued last Wednesday in the post, “Evaluating Moral Theories” http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2007/04/evaluating-moral-theories.html, a moral theory, like all theories, needs to be able to account for a range of observations relevant to that subject. Happiness and suffering theories fail this test.
Would you prefer life in an experience machine (or in “The Matrix”) over life in the real world? Many people say that they would not. In fact, some people are strongly repulsed by the idea. However, the “happiness and suffering” theory cannot account for these facts.
Take a person who wishes to provide medical care to sick and dying people in Africa. Tell this person, “I have a save-the-sick-and-dying program that I can put into my computer and feed into your brain as a completely realistic set of experiences. While you are attached to the Matrix, my program will feed you all of the impressions that will make you think that you are a great humanitarian saving sick and dying people in Africa. You will believe that everything you see and hear is real, and your memories about life before you entered the machine will be replaced by false memories relevant to your life in the Matrix. Now, do you want to enter the machine?”
Many (most, almost all) of those who want to save the sick and dying people in Africa would refuse. They would see no reason to enter the machine. For ‘happiness and suffering’ theory this is a problem, because the person who enters the machine will experience just as much if not more happiness, and be better able to avoid suffering, than a person in the real world. If ‘happiness and suffering’ are the only reasons for action that exist, or that are worth considering, an agent would have no reason to refuse the machine.
Yet, they do refuse.
The machine simply cannot give these people what they want. What they want is not the happiness that comes from saving people. They want to actually save people. This is something that they simply cannot do from inside the Matrix.
I often hear people respond to this by suggesting that the happiness that one would get from the experience machine is not ‘true happiness’. What is “true happiness”? It turns out to be a vague, ill-defined term that allows the person who uses it to engage in circular reasoning. They tell us that we only pursue ‘true happiness’. When asked to define this term, they say that ‘true happiness’ is defined as the only thing that we pursue.
We need a theory of (reasons for) action that explains how people can have a reason to refuse to enter the experience machine even though they will be happy inside the machine.
Desire-based theory has no problem with this. It says that all people seek to fulfill the more and the stronger of their desires. A desire is a propositional attitude that can be expressed in the form of “desires that P”, where P is a proposition. A desire that P is fulfilled in any state of affairs S where P is true in S.
If somebody has a “desire that I am saving the sick and the dying in Africa”, then this person is motivated to bring about states where “I am saving the sick and dying in Africa” is true. He is not motivated to enter the experience machine, because the experience machine cannot make that proposition true.
You can probably find some people who would enter the machine. These people have a desire for personal happiness and avoidance of pain. The experience machine can give them this. The experience machine can make the propositions, “I am experiencing happiness” and “I am not suffering” true.
The next objection raised to this model is that it treats all desires as equal. What should we do, for example, with people who desire to rape and torture young children? These, for them, are ‘reasons for action’.
This is false. If we can evaluate entering an experience chamber versus helping the sick and dying in Africa on whether they will actually fulfill desires, we can evaluate desires themselves according to how well they fulfill (other) desires. When we do this, we see that there are desires that tend to fulfill other desires (the desire to help the sick and dying in Africa), and desires that tend to thwart other desires (the desire to rape and torture young children). Consequently, we can even evaluate ‘reasons for action’ as ‘reasons for action that we have reason to promote and encourage’ and ‘reasons for action that we have reason to inhibit or discourage’.
We have criteria for categorizing people as ‘virtuous’ (as having those reasons for action that we have reasons to promote), and ‘vicious’ (as having those reasons for action that we have reasons to inhibit).
We have ‘reasons for action’ for promoting virtue and for combating viciousness.
The next challenge that comes along is typically to complain that evaluating desires by their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires is circular. It is circular, in the same way that coherentist epistemology is circular, in the same way that linguistics is circular, and in the same way as the process of “reflective equilibrium” is circular. A sufficiently large and complex system is considered virtuously circular, compared to the tight and direct circles of viciously circular arguments. The evaluation of desires relative to other desires is sufficiently broad and complex to be considered virtuously circular. Now, let’s apply desire fulfillment theory to the question Harris was trying to answer. Are there ‘reasons for action’ for being moral that do not depend on God? The answer is clearly ‘yes’. These desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others are a moral system that requires no reference to God.
So, I have answered the same challenge that Harris sought to answer. However, I did it with a better theory of value than the archaic 19th-century theory that Harris appealed to.
The Value of Truth
Now, I wish to return to the second part of Harris’s presentation, the part I originally tossed out because it was irrelevant. There was something important in that part of the presentation. However, Harris could not see it clearly because of his (defective) lens of happiness and suffering theory. Through the lens of desire fulfillment theory, it becomes more clearly visible.
Harris argued that, just because religious beliefs are useful, this does not make them true. This is fine, but it does not prove that they are not useful.
He uses an example of somebody who claims to be the fastest runner on the planet, even though he never runs, never competes, and is clearly in worse shape than professional Olympic athletes. When asked to defend this claim, he defends it on the basis that being the fastest runner on the planet gives his life meaning and purpose. Harris correctly points out that the desire for purpose does not make the belief true. However, he only hints at the real problem. “I’m sorry to tell you this, but you are NOT the fastest person on the planet. You may believe that you are the fastest person on the planet. From this, you may believe that your life has meaning and purpose. However, since the claim that you are the fastest person on the planet is false, your claim that your life has meaning and purpose is false as well.”
People may claim that serving God gives their lives meaning and purpose. However, in fact, nobody has ever served God. Nobody will ever serve God. Nobody has ever acquired a life of meaning and purpose by serving God. The only way for a life to have real meaning and purpose is if the things they accomplish, themselves, are real, and God is not real.
On the other hand, the person whose finds meaning and purpose in saving the sick and dying in Africa can actually find meaning and purpose, because this is something that can actually happen.
All of this ties neatly into the theory that we are beings who seek to fulfill the more and stronger of our desires, and our desire that ‘P’ is fulfilled in a state of affairs where ‘P’ is true. There is no state of affairs in which the desire to serve God can be fulfilled. However, there are states of affairs in which the desire to save the sick and dying people in Africa can be fulfilled.
Plus, we have an account where some desires (those that tend to fulfill other desires) are themselves better than others.
The Religious Argument
Now, I want to go back and discuss the argument that Harris started off addressing: “Even if there is no God, we should believe in God because, if we do not, we will have no reason to be moral.”
This argument commits the moral crime of fear-peddling. The speaker is trying to sell fear, and doing so on the basis of reasons that a good and moral person would know to be flawed.
The argument invites the audience to imagine a society without morality – a society of wonton violence – a society much like Baghdad, Iraq is today. It adds the claim that religion is the only way to avoid this state. In this way, it uses fear of entering a Baghdad-like state to sell hatred and fear of atheists.
This argument requires the assumption that people we have reason to avoid living in a society without morality. It says, (1) because people have reason to want to live in a moral society, and (2) because there can be no moral society without God, that (3) people have reason to promote belief in God and to fear and condemn (as a threat to society) those who do not believe.
However, premise (2) in this argument says that, without belief in God, a person has no reason to promote a moral society. For all practical purposes, it states can be completely indifferent to the immorality going on around him. For this claim to be true, we would have to say that an atheist can live in Baghdad, can go about his shopping while bombs scatter body parts around him, have his daughters taken from him, tortured, and killed in front of his eyes, all with complete indifference to what was happening.
There are few purer examples of bigotry in the world today than this argument that atheists have no reason to be moral.
If we reject this – if we allow that atheists can be concerned about the fact that they and those they care about are safe – then atheists have reasons to form a moral society even though they do not believe in God.
My suggestion is that this model does a better job of answering the challenge that Harris sat out to answer than the model that Harris actually uses. The “happiness and suffering” model cannot explain human choices nearly as well as the “desire fulfillment” model. The “desire fulfillment” model can answer the challenge of the experience machine (or The Matrix), where the “happiness and suffering” model stumbles. It also accounts for the value of truth – of why a person who values helping the sick and dying in Africa would not enter an experience machine to gain the experience of helping the sick and dying in Africa. It even answers the challenge of how desires themselves can have different values (depending on whether the desires tend to fulfill or thwart other desires).
I have also criticized the argument claiming that religion is useful for promoting morality on the grounds that it contains conflicting premises. It assumes that we all have reason to promote a moral society. It also claims that religion is the only way to form a moral society. However, this second premise requires the assumption that, without belief in God, we have no reason to promote a moral society – that an atheist would be indifferent towards the prospect of living in a society such as Baghdad. These types of claims are not only absurdly false, they are contemporary examples of fear-peddling bigotry.