Friday, April 22, 2011

God's Quality Control 6.3

Here I continue my thoughts on the debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig at the University of Notre Dame on April 7, 2011. The purported focus of the debate is this question: "Are the foundations of moral values natural or supernatural?" However, Craig has re-framed the question somewhat: "Without 'god,' to what authority can we appeal in order to bend others to our own will?" We're about halfway through Craig's comments on what Harris calls the value problem.

<clip 14:21 If we were to restart human evolution, people with a different set of moral values might well have evolved.>

Obviously true. But consider this point, which I've made before but which seems especially relevant here. Think about the rudimentary morality we see in social animals. Part of this morality is a rudimentary capacity for empathy. An individual will have some sense of the pleasure or suffering he witnesses in other individuals of his group, and this sense will have an effect on the way he behaves toward his fellows. Add to that a gigantic cerebral cortex that runs elaborate simulations of the mental and emotional states of your group-mates, and empathy for others grows to freakish proportions. Add civilization, and especially writing, and each generation of humans starts on the shoulders of the previous generation. Alongside the sick rationalizations that have passed for morality since humans first started thinking like humans, something amazing has grown: empathy that extends beyond the family, beyond the village, beyond the race, even beyond the species. Human morality—the bad kinds—is a result of human rationalization haphazardly applied to social instincts; the good kind of human morality is a result of human empathy combined with culture. Neither kind of morality is a result of any supernatural force. With this in mind, let's reconsider Craig's statement:

<clip 14:21 If we were to restart human evolution, people with a different set of moral values might well have evolved.>

If we were to restart evolution from the dawn of animal life, we would not be surprised at all to see animals with eyes, given that eyes have evolved independently some 40 times in Earth's history. Similarly, given that empathy is so prevalent among social animals, we might not find it too surprising to see it appear again. Big, complex brains like ours likely would never evolve, and therefore nothing like human morality would ever appear, either the ugly kind we're still stuck with or the good kind that will hopefully replace it. But given brains that appreciate metaphor and symbolism the way ours do, it would not seem surprising at all to see two kinds of morality appearing again. The first one, just like our first attempt, would be really sick, twisted, and arbitrary. Probably homosexuality would be ok but picking your nose would be an abomination. However, the second one, given time, civilization, and writing, would look a lot like the amazing kind that we are slowly discovering.

<clip 14:31 If people were raised like bees, women would kill men.>

Yes, just as when people are raised under superstitionism, they often do seem to think it their sacred duty to kill each other. However, let the bee-people discover writing, and they'll eventually jettison their false-start morality, just as we are striving to do now.

<clip 2, 3 0:45 Dawkins "indifference" quote>

True, but Dawkins also has mentioned many times and in many ways his hope that we can rise above the brute facts of our existence. In The Selfish Gene, he says, "We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism—something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world." Here, he is advocating the same ideas that Harris is advocating: let's use our higher brain functions to create a morality, one that is beneficial for all sentient beings.

<clip How does Harris solve the value problem>

Craig misrepresents Harris by even asking this question. Harris makes it very clear in both his book and in his Huffington Post article that there simply is no value problem. As a reminder, the value problem goes like this: there is no scientific basis to say that we should value well-being. Sure, that's obvious. But there is also no scientific basis to say that we should value truth, or the desire to understand how the world works, or factual evidence and logical coherence over guesswork and incomprehensible arguments. It is just as reasonable to say that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad as it is to say that an argument that contradicts itself is illogical. I like the way Harris concludes his argument that there is no value problem: "We need not apologize for pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps in this way. It is far better than pulling ourselves down by them."

That's 6.3. Thanks for watching.

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