Friday, March 07, 2008

E2.0: Lee Silver: Religion Without God

This is the 22nd 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.

Lee Silver, Professor of Molecular Biology and Public Policy at Princeton University, addressed the Beyond Belief 2 conference largely to speak about a religion that has no God – at least not a God in the traditional sense of a person sitting on a throne passing judgment on others.

An idea that we get from listening to some atheists is that there are only two options – belief in a personal God and a devotion to reason and science. Of course, any atheist who thinks about this for more than a moment will realize that this is not the case. These just happen to be the two options that he has focused the greatest amount of his attention on. Yet, at times, he does slip, and he reacts to news around the world as if anybody who is not a Christian, Muslim, or Jew is fully committed to the tools of reason and science.

For example, I commonly hear atheists celebrating the relative atheism in Europe, as if Europe has discovered the light and is years or decades ahead of America in that regard. Yet, it is just as plausible to argue that Europe, instead of discovering the light, has discovered an alternative form of darkness. It is because of this that, in spite of their abandonment of the Christian religion and aversion to Muslim religion, they fail to actually take off as a society.

The religion that Silver spoke about is the religion of naturalism – the idea that whatever is natural is good.

One of the forms that this nature worship takes in Europe can be found in their devotion to homeopathic medicine. Homeopathy, according to Silver, relies on the idea that sickness in the body is caused by ‘negative spirits’ and that the road to health is to replace these forces with ‘positive spirits’. The doctrine does not mention a God. An individual can be an ‘atheist’ in the traditional sense and still accept homoeopathy. Yet, these people still base their decisions on false beliefs about entities that do not exist and values that are not real. Whenever people do this, they risk making poor decisions that do more real-world harm than real-world good.

This irrational nature worship has manifested itself in Europe in the form of a strong public opposition to the use of genetically modified foods. Just as religion in America has lead to opposition to stem cell research (a form of scientific advance that promises to significantly reduce death and suffering), Europeans are strongly opposed to the use of genetically modified crops.

The creation of genetically modified foods is another technology that promises to reduce death and suffering by providing us with more efficient ways to feed a growing world population. To shun the technology of genetically modified foods is as irrational as to shun the technology of stem cell research. It does not matter that the prohibition does not come from scripture. It still comes from a belief in things that do not exist – a worship of things that have no divine spirit.

I suspect that many readers can understand the position better when we start to talk about genetically modified children. The idea that a parent may be able to genetically modify a child – selecting traits – often leads to a strong preference for ‘natural’ children. These are children whose DNA is determined, not by the parents, but by the unguided laws of nature. Readers may sense a strong preference for the latter and an aversion to the former that motivates them to seriously consider laws against such actions.

Unfortunately, those laws would also prevent a parent from noting that a newly fertilized egg has cystic fibrosis and purposely choosing to have that strand of DNA altered so as to remove the disease.

Defending these types of positions requires claiming that there are some ‘reasons for action that exist’ that call for preferring ‘natural’ over ‘unnatural’ states of affairs. It seems to require that what is ‘natural’ has some sort of intrinsic value and it is something that people should like in spite of its relationship to desires is false. Preserving the environment for its own sake – as an endeavor that realizes something of intrinsic worth – is as much a waste as pursuing an end because it pleases God. There is no God to please, so any claim that an act is justified because its result pleases God is false. There is no intrinsic value in nature so to say that an act is justified because it preserves that which has intrinsic value in nature is false.

Silver does not speak about the value of nature in terms of ‘intrinsic value’. He speaks of it in terms of worshipping a goddess mother Earth. However, in terms of practical effects, there is no difference. Both views still have agents bypassing important scientific breakthroughs and scientific research on a subject that promises to be extremely useful for the sake of realizing ‘sacred’ values that do not exist. Both views involve appeals to reasons for action that do not exist.

Desire utilitarianism says that, insofar as we are interested in our moral obligations to the environment (or anything else for that matter), the only type of value that exists is in the form of relationships between states of affairs and good desires (desires that tend to fulfill other desires). This means that the only value that a state of affairs in nature has is in terms of its relationship to good desires.

We can make an argument that a desire for that which is natural is a good desire, and an insufficiently strong aversion to ‘playing God’ is a bad desire, in virtue of the desire-thwarting possibilities. That is to say, if these technologies get out of control, the consequences could be disastrous (and tremendously desire-thwarting). In order to avoid potential disasters we have good reason to promote an aversion to these types of activities. It is often called ‘playing God’, but it is in fact playing with technologies that have the potential to produce disastrous consequences.

In these cases, we still have to ask about the nature of these disastrous effects. Are they real desire-thwarting effects? Or do they consist in the widespread destruction of ‘intrinsic values’ that do not exist anyway? If the latter, we can ignore them, the concerns raised are not real.

We may have a certain natural affinity for certain types of environmental states. In just the same way that we do not want the air to be too warm or too cold, we do not want to be bothered by obnoxious smells, and we do not want to be bothered by obnoxious noises all the time, we may have evolved a natural desire to find value in certain environments. These may well be environments that are like those that our ancestors found to be easy to live in. In this case, there may be a natural desire to preserve certain environments, and these desires give us a reason for action.

However, this does not give the natural environment any type of sacred value. It has value in the same way that a comfortable room or a quiet place to sleep has value. It has the same value of a good tasting steak or a good looking picture.

As it turns out, I can give an argument for promoting a certain type of value in nature – an argument for a certain type of environmentalism. It rests on the fact that nature, tens of millions of years, has given us an environment in which humans could survive, even where humans were too stupid to take much responsibility for their own survival. So, to the degree that we have an interest in surviving as a species, to that degree we have reason to preserve an environment that even our primitive ancestors could have lived in. We have reason to argue for using caution when we make changes – particularly when we make global changes such as destroying the ozone layer or filling the atmosphere with extra carbon dioxide and methane.

This does not argue for a blind worship of nature, any more than an IT department’s decision to proceed cautiously with a server upgrade argues for a blind worship of the existing computer network. It is simply a call for practical restraint – let’s make sure that we are not going to do anything significantly harmful before we do it.

In many cases, the ‘reasons for action’ that people give for standing in the way of actions that are called ‘playing God’ are reference to ‘reasons for action’ that simply do not exist. Nature has no intrinsic merit. The only value to be found in any state of affairs – including any state of affairs in nature – is determined by that state’s capacity to fulfill good desires. These include desires for food, clothing, and shelter as well as health. If the value of a state of affairs in nature cannot be expressed in these terms, then the values that people are speaking about are as imaginary as those of any religion.


Piede Rosso said...

I will have to disagree on your assessment that the opposition to
GM is due to an irrational form of
naturalism. I am an atheist European (well more of an agnostic
really) and I am not too comfortable with lack of controls
and safety standards that sometimes
accompany GM food trials. I feel the opposition to GM is more of a stand against big corporations, such as Monsanto, which seem to be pushing for all sorts of GM technologies (some of which can actually be less advantangeous for
farmers, because of several factors
including seed production). In a way, it is perhaps more of a socio-political stand than a naturist-inspired one.
My caution in relation to GM, which echoes many people here, is not unqualified, so it is unfair to compare it to the opposition to stem cell research in Christian America. Just my two cents... otherwise I find your blog most interesting.

Kristopher said...

i find that i have trouble even figuring out what people mean when they say break things into the categories of natural and unatrual...

it is made of things found in nature... everything is made from things found on earth (or the surrounding area) does that make everything natural?

if it is nartural for beavers to build a dam; is it not equally natural for humans to build a science that produce better and better medicine and tools? is that a part of human nature? if not what is the difference?

if unnatural includes anything man-made but does not include things that are beaver-made (for some reason). then we would have to stop wearing clothes or useing tools or picking berries or hunting deer. since these are all activities in which man makes something by changing his enviroment. killing a wild pig and sliceing off the meat has created a man-made slab of meat, wouldn't that be unnatrual?

the better question to ask when a person makes something new would be "is this knew thing better or worse then what we already have and how should we use it if it is better"

asking if the new thing is natural or unnatrual just doesnt make any sense to me, i dont know how to interpret that statement in a way where i can understand what the person is trying to convey...