Saturday, December 22, 2007

E2.0: Edward Slingerland: The Religion that Denies it is a Religion.

This is the third in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

The weird thing about Enlightenment 2.0 is that it is a religion that denies that it is a religion.

The third presenter at the Beyond Belief 2 conference, Edward Slingerland, will continue to develop the history of Enlightenment 1.0. However, in doing so he will give us substantive to chew on. He is going to argue that we cannot give up on supernatural (what he calls ‘metaphysical’) entities when it comes to morality.

I, of course, completely reject that conclusion.

However, before we debate the conclusion, we need to see how Slingerland gets there.

Slingerland is Canada Research Chair in Chinese Thought and Embodied Cognition at the University of British Columbia. His contribution at the conference to understanding Enlightenment 1.0 was to draw on a connection that existed at the time between a problem that the French philosopher Voltaire tried to solve and ancient Chinese philosophy.

One of the criticisms of Enlightenment 1.0 was the claim that it was impossible to get people to be moral without the threat of eternal damnation. In order to answer this objection, Voltaire (according to Slingerland, pointed toward ancient Chinese philosophy and, in particular, the philosophy of Confucius. The Chinese, Voltaire argued, had a morality that did not involve the threat of eternal damnation – a morality that was free of religious baggage – yet they seemed to get along quite well.

However, in China, this ‘metaphysically minimalist’ morality faced the same objections that Enlightenment 1.0 was facing in Europe.

There was a very popular criticism that the supernatural minimalism was leading to social chaos. And this was a period of social chaos and you had a lot of people saying that it was a period of social chaos because nobody believed in ghosts and spirits anymore.

Also, even the ‘supernatural minimalists’ in China argued that there was a need to preserve and continue religious institutions because it provided the people with comfort. A Confucian philosopher, Xinzi, said of the rain ceremony:

You pray for rain and it rains. Why? For no particular reason. It is just as though you had not prayed and it rained anyway.

Yet, even Xinzi argued that people should continue to do the rain ceremony because it made people feel good and it brought people together.

So, both ancient Chinese philosophy and Enlightenment 1.0 had the same ‘bug’. Its thinkers, even though they were metaphysical minimalists, were not totally able to get rid of metaphysical entities entirely. Even Voltaire was a deist.

According to Slingerland, there are two directions we can go with this in Enlightenment 2.0. We could (1) go the rest of the way and cut out the remaining metaphysical entities, or (2) admit that some metaphysical entities will be necessary even in Enlightenment 2.0.

Slingerland will defend the second option. I, of course, argue for the first.

To describe Slingerland’s position more precisely, he holds that something about human cognition – about the way humans are put together (how we evolved), that we are fundamentally incapable of doing away with the last of these supernatural entities. Ultimately, he asserts, Enlightenment 2.0 will be “grounded in values that adhere to the non-factual."

To prove this point, Slingerland points to the classic fact-value distinction. Values are not facts. Values are not ‘supernatural minimalist’. Either we must accept these supernatural values as the grounding for our morality, or we must give up value (morality) all together. Those are our only two options.

Slingerland draws on the works of Charles Taylor (the most recent recipient of the Templeton Prize), and in particular the book Sources of the Self, in drawing a distinction between two types of value.

Value Type 1: Weak Evaluations. These are mere personal preferences – e.g., “I prefer vanilla ice cream over chocolate” (or, in my case, it would be the other way around). In Slingerland’s words, “It is recognizably subjective and arbitrary.”

Value Type 2: Strong Evaluations. Strong evaluation, like “trafficking in child slaves is wrong,” has “normative force”. People who traffic in child slaves are bad in a way that is not the case for people who like chocolate ice cream. Also, strong evaluations are intolerant. We impose them on others. In fact, strong judgments are a call to use force or violence against others. We arrest people, imprison them, maim them, and kill them, on the basis of our strong evaluations. They are justifications for doing harm.

It is interesting what Slingerland says about these justifications for doing harm. Because of a strong evaluation, we wish to do harm to certain types of people. However, we also have this impulse to try to ‘justify’ doing harm. It is not enough that we want to do harm to these people, but we want to base the harm that we do on the right sorts of reasons.

In order to get these right sorts of reasons, we are biologically compelled to make something up.

The way that I usually justify [the harm done to others based on a strong evaluation] is by referring to some sort of what Taylor calls an ontological claim. These are basically empirically unverifiable metaphysical entities that I invoke to justify the strength of my strong evaluation. In the case of child slavery we tend to appeal to something like human rights or the dignity of the individual. In the case of children . . . there is something special in innocence about children.

These entities do not exist. We cannot point to anything in the real world and say, “There is a human right” or “That thing over there is human dignity.”

Since even secularists draw upon these unverifiable ontological entities, even secularists have a ‘religion’ in this sense. It is a religion without gods and angels, but it is still a religion with unprovable, supernatural ‘values’ used to justify our strong evaluations.

The weird thing about Enlightenment 2.0 is that it is a religion that denies that it is a religion. . . The metaphysical entities are not explicitly recognized. They are always there in the background but they are not talked about too much

When discussing where these “liberal values” come from, Slingerland asserts that they come from Chrsitianity.

Historically it is actually coming out of Christianity. It’s through Kant, getting watered down in Enlightenment 1.0, until with us it is based on a kind of a vague sense about something being special, dignified about people.

One of the things that Enlightenment 2.0 will borrow from Christianity and all religion is this disposition to use violence to force its values on others without anything to back up this use of violence than some imaginary metaphysical entities. They are not tied to a god, but they are still empirically unverifiable supernatural entities.

By the way, even moral subjectivists fall victim to this type of analysis. A moral subjectivists holds that moral entities are not real. They do not exist in the real world. However, we must believe in them, so we get to make up whatever moral entities we want. The important thing is that we make up some set of moral entities, entities that we know are not real, but entities that guide our actions nonetheless.

This part does not seem to bother Slingerland. We make up these ontological entities specifically to provide a make-believe ‘excuse’ to kill, maim, imprison, or otherwise do harm to others. Slingerland seems to have no trouble postulating imaginary entities for the purpose of justifying harm.

We have these moral intuitions. We want to impose them on other people. We need a justification. So we make one up. And it often involves some invocation of a moral law or some rational justification. But it is really about the feeling. We just don’t like it.

I actually agree with Slingerland that people do this all the time. They made up God and made up commandments that they assigned to God in order to say, “Because this comes from God and not out of my own personal desire to see you suffer, my actions are justified, and you deserve to suffer.” However, the fact that people are always making things up in order to justify doing harm to others does not justify the practice of making up reasons to justify doing harm to others.

Slingerland says that we can’t do anything else.

We can’t get away from metaphysical beliefs at some level. . . . I don’t think that it is because we haven’t tried hard enough. I think that it is because thoroughgoing nonbelief is actually impossible for creatures like us for psychologically healthy human beings.

In other words, to be a psychologically healthy human being you have to be caught in a trap of making up imaginary entities to justify doing harm to others that, ultimately, are not justified by anything other than the fact that you really want to harm those people.

Actually, I would not describe such a being as ‘psychologically healthy’.

I hold that when Slingerland starts talking about value, he starts off substantially wrong and gets more wrong as he goes along.

When it comes to Value Type 1, I hold that calling this a ‘judgment’ that is ‘subjective and arbitrary’ gets us off on the wrong foot. A statement like, “I prefer chocolate ice cream over vanilla” is a fact statement. There are a lot of true things that I can say about myself. I am 6’ tall. I am male. I live in Colorado. My blood pressure is around 140 over 80. I have a scar on my right thumb. I have a preference for chocolate ice cream over vanilla. These are perfectly ordinary, objectively true statements.

My preference for chocolate ice cream over vanilla is no more ‘subjective and arbitrary’ than the scar on my right thumb. It is true that not everybody has a scar on their right thumb like mine (or a scar on their right thumb at all). It is true that there is no reason to hold that they should have a scar on their right thumb like mine. Yet, my scar exists, and its existence is neither subjective nor arbitrary. It is a part of the real world in which we live – as is my preference for chocolate ice cream over vanilla.

When it comes to Type 1 values, these values are real-world entities that have real-world effects. Also, like the scar on my thumb, they are not necessary in the sense that outside forces (human behavior) determines whether those entities exist or the form that they take.

These Type 1 values provide us with reasons for action. They not only give us reason to fulfill the desires directly, but they give us reason to build in others (and give others reason to build in us) Type 1 values that aid in the fulfillment of other Type 1 values. My preference for chocolate ice cream not only gives me a reason to go to the store and buy some chocolate ice cream. It also gives me reason to build in others an aversion to preventing me from going to the store and getting some chocolate ice cream.

What Slinglerland (and Taylor) call Type 2 evaluations are simply evaluations of Type 1 evaluations – taking Type 1 evaluations and classifying them as good (tend to fulfill other Type 1 evaluations), bad (tend to thwart Type 1 evaluations), and neutral (have little or no effect on Type 1 evaluations). Then, to use the social tools at our disposal to promote Type 1 values that tend to fulfill other values, inhibit Type 1 values that tend to thwart other values, and simply not worry about Type 1 values that would neither fulfill nor thwart other Type 1 values if they were universally promoted or inhibited.

Again, I agree that a lot of people on the secular side of the debate do make up metaphysical entities to justify the harms that they wish to inflict on others. Part of my reason for arguing that I am not against religion per se, but I am against wrongdoing, is because I recognize that a person does not need to believe in God to invent metaphysical entities that they can then draw upon to justify doing harm to others.

Yet, the fact that scientists can provide countless examples of people doing these sorts of things, and study them in MRIs and through other scientific techniques, does not and never will justify the practice of making up reasons (and ontological commitments) to ‘justify’ doing harm to others.

1 comment:

Roet said...

...just when I was starting to enjoy it, you stop! :)
More seriously, I was left with the
impression that the full refutation of Slingerland's thesis was not achieved. This troubles me a bit, because I want to agree with you, but his argument is quite good. Seems to me as he said an extension of Kant's position, which seems to agree with what we see around us. Is there a way out?
I would have liked to think there is, but I am not a competent enough thinker to come up with one.
Thanks for the enlightening posts...