Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Reckless Argumentation

Brendt Rasmussen at “Screwing the Inscrutable” posted a video clip in which creationist Chuck Missler attempts to disprove evolution using a jar of peanut butter. His claim was that if new life can start from molecules and energy, that we should occasionally find new life in a jar of peanut butter.

From here we can expect the standard response that the speaker filed to distinguish between abiogenesis and evolution – the former concerning the emergence of live from nonliving matter, the latter dealing with the change of living organizations over time (irrespective of their origin). Plus, even as a critique of abiogenesis, the clip does not address the actual claim (there exists a combination of energy and organic molecules from which life can emerge) and substitutes a straw man (all combinations of organic molecules and energy can result in new life).

This response is not inaccurate. It is, however, incomplete and, I would suggest, rather trivial. Ultimately, in the lives of the vast majority of the population, it does not really matter how life came about. What really matters is what we are going to do with the lives we have. Food, clothing, shelter, the welfare of one’s children – these are the things that matter.

There is a moral dimension to this clip that actually does have an impact on these types of concerns.

In addition to saying that Missler and others who helped produce this clip are mistaken about the facts, we can also say that they represent a type of person – a type of moral character – that makes this world a worse place than it would have otherwise been.

One thing that we can say about everybody involved in this video is that, because of their efforts, the world has been made a worse place. This is not to say that they have brought down civilization as we know it. Their contribution will not be that great. However, the person who walks into an office or a school and starts shooting, or who causes a fatal accident on the highway while he tries to drive home drunk, does not bring about the end of civilization either. Yet, they do real harm, and that real harm has a moral dimension.

It would have taken very little effort for the people involved in making this clip to have sought an answer to the question, “Why does this argument not defeat your theory?” This is what an intellectually responsible person would have done.

A responsible person would have said to himself, “I am about to devote a portion of my life making this contribution to the world. A responsible person needs to make sure that he is making a responsible contribution. My responsibility here includes a responsibility to make sure that I present the view that I am criticizing honestly and accurately. Failure to do so is reckless. Of course, I believe that my understanding is correct, but – just like the airline company that believes that its airplane is airworthy, one has an obligation to double-check these things. It would take just a few minutes to find out whether this peanut-butter argument actually works. So, it is time to do a little inspection before I invest this energy.”

Yet, the concept of moral responsibility seems to be beyond their grasp, because they did not see fit to respect this simple moral obligation.

These are people for whom we are quite justified in saying, “Have you no shame? Didn’t anybody ever teach you the difference between right and wrong? Did you never learn the concepts of personal responsibility and obligation? You are an example of what is wrong with the world – you with your recklessness. How would you like it if everybody behaved as you did?”

This last question is particularly important.

If we look at the world as a whole, the harms done by a single drunk driver killing a few members of some family is rather trivia. The world will go along much as before, for most people. The real evil of drunk driving involves the risk that we all suffer at the hands of drunk driving generally. It is the practice of drunk driving that we have reason to condemn, more than any individual act. Our condemnation of the act is merely the condemnation of an instance of the more general problem.

The same is true with lying. An individual lie is typically of little significance. Yet, we have many very strong reasons to avoid a culture of lying. Our condemnation of any given lie is a condemnation of an instance of a larger problem that we have reason to answer.

We have just as much reason to condemn intellectual recklessness as we do lying.

Intellectual recklessness spreads more false beliefs than lying and, as a result, does far more harm to innocent people than lying. Chances are, the thought process that got us into this war in Iraq had little to do with genuine deception, and had a lot to do with intellectual recklessness. A morally responsible person – a person who realizes that his moral obligations include intellectual obligations – would have asked more and better questions about what we are getting into.

This video is not only an instance of intellectual recklessness, it promotes a culture of intellectual recklessness. The video not only contains a lesson about peanut butter and energy (that gets the facts wrong), it contains a moral lesson about how a person is obligated to act with respect to the facts. In this case, it teaches a moral lesson that is more perverse and contemptible than its scientific lesson. It teaches viewers to disregard individual moral responsibility to get the fact straight and to make a positive contribution to human learning.

Its scientific mistakes can be dismissed as relatively unimportant. Its moral lesson is of great importance. People who contribute to a culture of intellectual recklessness get innocent people maimed and killed. They destroy quality of life, adversely affecting those who have too many real-world concerns to care about (food, clothing, and shelter) to devote much time to studying theories of abiogenesis.

In fact, people like those who prey on this video prey upon those who are too busy trying to take care of real-world concerns to study the issue in detail. Those people do not have time to go through the facts and find out if the fact of the matter. As a result, they put their trust in others – in people like you and me and the people who produced this video – to act responsibly when we make claims such as this.

This video represents an abuse of that trust.

In earlier posts, I criticized the idea that simply stating the true proposition that a child is being raised within a society that follows a particular tradition represents child abuse, or that even raising a child in a religious tradition is, by itself (without any consideration given to the specifics of that society) a form of child abuse. Those claims generated a fair amount of discussion.

Those claims do not imply that nothing associated with theism can be classified as abusive.

My argument against the idea that theism is abusive by default is that theism does not, by itself, demonstrate a willingness to harm or a callous disregard for the wellbeing of the child. Many theists are good people.

However, if material such as this is being offered as a way to ‘teach’ children, then this does represent a form of abuse. Children need to trust adults to accept a certain degree of responsibility in determining whether the information they feed the children is true or false. An adult who does not take proper care, who acts in an intellectually reckless manner, and does so in a way that affects children, has betrayed the child’s trust. He has, in fact, demonstrated a willingness to harm or, at least, a callous disregard for the child’s welfare that does qualify as abuse.

It does not matter whether these people are ultimately right or wrong about the existence of God or the possibility of abiogenesis. This is not an argument that says that these are bad people because they are wrong. They are bad people because they are reckless, even if they turn out to be right. They are bad people in the same sense that the drunk driver is a bad person, even if the drunk driver manages to get home without killing anybody. The irresponsible person’s luck may protect him from the condemnation that would follow in fact from good people recognizing his failings – because they do not notice. However, they do not protect him from deserving condemnation.

So, here is my suggestion: Do not stop at merely pointing out that these people are mistaken. Go the extra step of asserting the fact that, in addition to having the intellectual high ground, you also have the moral high ground. Yours is the position of intellectual responsibility and a love of truth. Theirs is an intellectual recklessness that, like the recklessness of the drunk driver, makes people worse off.

They truly should be ashamed of themselves.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In the eyes of a Christian we are all sinners. It seems in the eyes of an atheist ethicist we all may be bad people. I suspect we all may at one time or another have shown at least some intellectual laziness, or in some way behaved less than ideally.
It is true that the creation of this clip was not a good thing, but to brand the people involved as bad people without know anything about the good they may have done in the rest of their lives, seems to me to demostrate a bit of intellectual laziness as well. It's easy to lump people into categories of good and bad, but if we are to be completely honest, we must accept we all fall on a broad continuum of morality and it makes more sense to encourage everyone to do more good and less bad than to arbitrarily throw people into categories so we can feel justified in condemning them and praising ourselves.