Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Atheists Need A Good Wrenching

(via Evolutionblog) Jean Kazez argues, contra Russell Blackford, that technical arguments regarding the moral implications of atheism are best kept in within the philosophy department:

Suppose Russell gets lots of fame and acclaim, and starts promoting the error theory all over the place. So he starts influencing people to think that atheists must believe the sentence above is false, or at least not true. I wouldn't hesitate to say I thought that was a bad idea. It wouldn't be my place to address him in the second person and tell him what to talk about, but I'd be perfectly entitled to my opinion that spreading this view is unwise.

And it would be a perfectly cogent and respectable opinion. This sort of meta-ethics would likely increase public distrust of atheism and discourage people from accepting atheism. I'd also make another sort of argument--that meta-ethics can't be discussed coherently in the public square. It's a highly technical area of philosophy, where philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, metaphysics, and logic intersect. There is simply no way that the ordinary person, with little or no education in philosophy, can get a grip on the pertinent issues.

I agree with her to a certain extent; there's no sense in indiscriminately broadcasting the implications of error theory. Though this has less to do, I think, with the technical nature of the argument per se and more to do with the fact that the details would get mangled in the process. It's entirely too easy to imagine Blackford's "sophisticated moral relativist" being reduced to an amoral creature who eats baby back ribs for lunch.

That said, to confine such discussions to philosophy seminars does a disservice to the atheist community. As I've written about on multiple occasions, many atheists seem to be ignorant of (or unconcerned with) the difficulties that arise when you make humanity the arbiter of morality. For example, I noticed atheist luminary PZ Meyers saying the following not so long ago:

Morality derives from empathy and a sense of communal obligation with our fellow human beings, not with an arbitrary and whimsical supernatural authority.

To which I respond:

  • Why empathy? It's an evolved response deserving of no particular epistemic privilege. I might just as reasonably suggest a morality based on disgust.
  • All humans? What about ones who disagree with that premise? Or want to do me harm? Humans that I don't know, that might be a thousand miles away? Surely we should extend the courtesy to all sentient being, yes? What's so special about sentience anyway?

And so on... you get the idea. PZ's statement is uncontroversial provided that you agree to certain core principles. But atheists, gnu and otherwise, are frequently in the position where they have to defend themselves against people who do not share these principles and it strikes me that they don't realize how tenuous their position actually is. They need to go through Blackford's "psychological wrench" and understand what they're actually arguing before they can articulately defend their position. And the only way that's going to happen is if people like Kazez and Blackform spend some time talking gory details with the atheist community at large.


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