Monday, 17 December 2007

God, Morality, and Progress

I recently finished reading Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion. Partially this has been because I admire Dawkins but have read comparatively little of his work, and partially this is because I have gotten rather annoyed with people that criticise the book without having read it (which seems to amount to most published reviews and many book-length rebuttals). Mostly, however, I read it because the Evolution Studies Group at Dalhousie chose it for their most recent reading.

Although one might think that it comprises mostly biologists, this group is actually made up mostly of people from the social sciences: philosophers, mainly, with some historians and sociologists for good measure, and I believe a stray psychologist or two as well. This makes for some interesting discussions, usually in directions that I cannot predict. In the case of Dawkins, though, I am right at home: a biologist wandering through theology, generally in agreement with the philosophers, but somewhat out of place all the same.

Much of the criticism of Dawkins is levelled at his lack of philosophical sophistication. I had heard this myself, but did not appreciate it until the philosophers explained things. Indeed, as it turns out, there are far better versions of the historical proofs for God's existence than are addressed by Dawkins. They are just as flawed, only in a more sophisticated fashion, and take far more verbiage to refute. I would argue that a proper refutation would require the book to be twice as long as it is, and probably nowhere near as witty. More than that, Dawkins's intent is not to provide the final word in the question of God's existence (something that talented philosophers and theologians have attempted for millennia) but to demonstrate that his dismissal of said entity's existence is not without consideration of the more famous arguments. Still, I would be a little less embarrassed by proxy if Dawkins had at least acknowledged that he was not dealing with the best versions of the arguments, that he had considered them but found them to be just as lacking. Instead he seems to think that any one version is as good as any other, and tackles at best mediocre and at worst laughable takes on the matter.

His argument against the existence of God is oddly one-dimensional: he merely refutes the argument from design (which as a biologist I know to be complete poppycock, although an understanding of that may take some considerable education to acquire fully). He does so very well, but I am not certain that he has made his case merely through the inversion of a popular (if fallacious) argument. He does take it to be illustrative of a far more powerful concept, though, one which I feel is the most important aspect of the matter: there is really no reason to support the notion of God in the first place. The argument from design purports not only the existence of God but that God created, designed, or guided the development of the material universe. As Dawkins succinctly puts it, a universe with such a God is demonstrably different from a universe without one, and every prediction made by the creator/designer/intervener-God hypothesis can be shown to be contradicted. There is thus no evidence for God, and Occam's Razor suggests strongly that such a fantastic entity must therefore be very unlikely. As Carl Sagan put it, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and here we have one of the most extraordinary claims ever put forth, with no evidence whatsoever. Still, this is not a demonstration of non-existence, and it leaves the reader somewhat unfulfilled.

It is a tremendous stretch from the purely philosophical discussion of the existence of a creator God to assertions of God's nature and desires, and of God's past actions, as are made in the Bible. The number of a priori assumptions that must be made to require that God fit the character of the Bible is stupendous: one must specify God's positions on a vast number of completely arbitrary issues (positions that are themselves often impossible to justify without a holy text to dictate them). However, it is exactly this version of a God that is used by the faithful to argue for a religious foundation of morality. This is implied in every offhanded assertion that atheists are immoral, or less moral than the religious: God dictates morality, and without God, one's morality is arbitrary.

This is an assertion that has repulsed me for as long as I have been aware of it. It is demonstrably false, both from a philosophical perspective and from empirical evidence. I would argue that the opposite is in fact true: I (as an atheist) try to do good because it is good, not out of fear of punishment or hope for reward. I identify what is good through reflection and compassion, and while my complete set of "good acts" may differ in small ways from that of another, I have enough confidence in the goodness of human nature to expect that it will not differ substantially. We each have our own moral compass, and each points in more or less the same direction. (I make exceptions, of course, for psychopathic individuals such as Hitler, Stalin, and more recently, Saddam Hussein. Of course, while the religious like to attribute their evils to atheism -- a demonstrable falsehood in Hitler's case, at least: he outlawed atheist groups, and ranted against the evils of atheism -- the fact of the matter is that these were twisted, evil people, and fortunately such are very rare in society.) Dawkins makes a compelling point on the matter: the Bible is full of contradictions on what is ethically correct, and so one must choose which one agrees with. What one agrees with is guided, either by one's own moral compass or by edicts from one's church, but ultimately, it is and must be guided.

My view of atheist ethics goes further than this. I pity the religious people who do what they identify as good exclusively through hope for reward or fear of punishment. Such a view of morality must result in little short of paranoia. Life is far more than what one understands as a toddler, when every interaction with the wider world revolves around pleasing one's parents. I suspect (and others in the group agreed) that in fact the deeply religious operate more by their own moral compasses than by constant comparison against some Biblical standard of behaviour. They may calibrate their compasses by Biblical standards, but ultimately they operate, to all intents and purposes, autonomously. The religious fear that atheism leads to chaos overlooks the fact that they themselves operate using the same equipment as the atheists, with more or less the same effects. Many aspects of our morality are, I am fairly certain, so deeply ingrained as to be universal: the edict that one must do unto others as one would have them do unto you is one such aspect. Other things, such as conservative sexual standards, are functions of culture: how one calibrates one's moral compass is not ingrained. The only difference is that the religious have an external and absolute set of standards, while atheists must come to their own conclusions.

This leads to the real argument behind religiously-guided morality: that without that external set of standards, people will have differing moral compasses. The religious do not trust that moral compasses will all point in more or less the same direction (aside from the psychopaths, who will not be improved through religious influence). One might say that atheists such as I have faith in humanity, but I would not go so far. Humans are social animals, and all social animals have internal mechanisms to help them to get along with others of their kind. Our moral compass is a manifestation of those mechanisms, and all the more wondrous for it. That it varies, and that it is influenced by others, allows it to evolve.

This brings up another point made by Dawkins: that morality evolves. Darwin was, by the standards of his day, liberal and progressive, and yet he held attitudes toward race that would make modern-day conservatives cringe. As Dawkins put it, the moral Zeitgeist has changed. We see this as a good thing: racial bias (to take just the one example) has proven to be founded in error and has been perpetuated to the detriment of all. The fact that European culture and those derived from it is more liberal than it was a hundred years ago can be argued to be a good thing from any number of perspectives. I would certainly make those arguments myself, but I would also point out that, having been brought up in a liberal environment, I would see any change in the moral Zeitgeist towards the direction of the values that I hold myself as a good one, regardless of the direction of that change. If I were taught from an early age that (say) people of Asian descent were constitutionally untrustworthy, and this was a common belief in the culture in which I grew up, a history of cultural change towards distrust of Asians would be seen as a good thing. The fact that I can attribute such differences to differences and misunderstandings between cultures leads me to believe that, by objective standards (if they can be said to exist at all), modern European morality has improved from its past state, but I must still be cautious of the very real possibility that a perception of positive progress in other values is merely a reflection of them having become more like my own, which may in turn be entirely arbitrary from an objective standpoint.

So, is the prospect of objective morality actually viable? I would like to think that it is, at least for the major issues: respect for the persons and property of others. The Golden Rule ("do unto others as you would have them do unto you") is key here, applied to all humanity. There are many less critical issues, in which I may disagree with others, but my (and most liberals') compass is calibrated by another, relativistic, edict: "live and let live." In other words, I allow others to decide what is right and wrong for them, so long as it does not affect me. I believe that the core of objective morality follows from these two edicts (although I will grant the possibility that I have not -- yet -- identified some further guideline for morality that further refines matters). There are of course situations in which my application of these guidelines differs from another's; further refinement of each compass may be necessary, but I do not believe that objective morality need cover all possible situations. Personal moralities are, I am fairly certain, tied up with personalities, and so cannot be the same for all people; at this point, they are perhaps not properly called "moralities" in the first place. But the fundamentals are the same, for the religious and the atheist alike: we all want to live in a safe place, where we will not be assaulted or robbed or otherwise abused, and that has nothing at all to do with religion. Making the world a safe and secure place is not a mandate of religion: it is a mandate of humanitarianism, something that we all share.