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On Atheism and Morality; a Reply to P.Z. Myers

P.Z. Myers has a recent post ("Morality Doesn't Equal God") in which he takes issue with Robert Wright, who is proposing a new kind of rapprochement between religion and science. Wright recommends that we move to a consensus on the view that purpose and moral law is inherent in nature, a view cleverly dubbed 'Neism' (Naturalism melded with Deism) by Joe Carter. I believe that Wright's view is philosophically incoherent and even pernicious. His motives for imputing teleology and morality to nature are clear enough: Darwinism is faltering under scrutiny, as it denies teleology and fails to explain the moral law, and it will crumble unless it is welded to an ideology that invokes both. It's ironic that Darwinism may well segue into a nature religion, which is probably its only way out of its inexorable slide into the materialist dust-bin (Marxism and Freudianism will shift over to make room). But mankind has had plenty of nature religions, and they have never failed to be intellectually vacuous and culturally pernicious. We don't need another.

P.Z. Myers takes issue with Wright from the Darwinist perspective:

All we have to do to end the conflict between science and religion is convert the Christians to deists and get the scientists to pretend that evolution is teleological! Who knew it would be so easy? Unfortunately, from my perspective, knowledge is not one of those things on which one can compromise -- you've either got evidence for something, or you don't. We do not have evidence for purpose in evolution, and if anything, all the evidence is against the idea that evolution has a direction or that natural selection can be anything but an unguided response to local conditions.

Myers denies the teleology in nature that is obvious to all honest observers. Ironically, it is the inference to teleology, not the inference to Darwinian randomness, that is the basis for nearly all modern biological research. Most research in genetics, cell biology, physiology, anatomy, molecular biology, etc. depends critically on understanding the purposes of biological structures and systems. Evolutionary just-so stories about how these systems came to be are of little value to research. Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of teleology.


Furthermore, [Wright's] example doesn't work. He's all hung up on the "moral law", and even cites C.S. Lewis. He wants to argue that the existence of morality, even if it isn't derived from a god, is still an indication of the existence of a general directedness or overarching nudge from the laws of the universe, and therefore we should all just get along and accept this awesome pan-galactic force.

Myers is too smart to be duped by a "pan-galactic force":
Nope, says I.

Myers explains:
First, there is no moral law: the universe is a nasty, heartless place where most things wouldn't mind killing you if you let them.

Myers misunderstands moral law. The moral law applies to human beings, not to inanimate matter and not to non-human life. The fact that meteors can strike and kill at random or that viruses cause epidemics aren't violations of moral law. Meteors and viruses aren't subject to moral law; therefore, their agency isn't evidence against moral law. They are governed by physical law, the origin of which atheists are as unable to explain as they are unable to explain the origin of moral law.

No one claims that inanimate matter or even sentient non-human living things are subject to moral law. The issue Myers raises -- "the nasty heartless universe" -- is the question of theodicy, which is a profound theological question, but is not not a question of moral law.

Myers continues:

No one is compelled to be nice...

The fact that no one is "compelled to be nice" is evidence favoring the existence of moral law. If moral conduct is compelled, it isn't moral, it's merely... compelled. Moral law is "ought," not "is" or "must." To act morally, we must have the choice to not act morally, but choose to act morally anyway. A compelled act is, from the standpoint of the person compelled, morally neutral. A person compelled to act exercises no moral choice, precisely because the act is compelled.

Myers digs a deeper hole:

...you or anyone could go on a murder spree, and all that is stopping you is your self-interest (it is very destructive to your personal bliss to knock down your social support system) and the self-interest of others, who would try to stop you. There is nothing 'out there' that imposes morality on you, other than local, temporary conditions, a lot of social enculturation, and probably a bit of genetic hardwiring that you've inherited from ancestors who lived under similar conditions...

Is Myers serious? Does he really believe that all that is stopping you or him or me from murdering people is our self-interest? Myers insists that the entire reason that you aren't a serial killer is that doing so would destroy your "personal bliss" by "knocking down your social support system." Is it really true that you don't kill people because of "local, temporary conditions, a lot of social enculturation, and probably a bit of genetic hardwiring that you've inherited from ancestors who lived under similar conditions..."?

The reason that the vast majority of us don't commit murder is that we think it's morally wrong to kill innocent people. We hew to a moral code that presses upon us. We don't refrain from slaughtering innocents for merely selfish reasons; even if we were certain to get away with murder and gain some benefit, the vast majority of us wouldn't kill. In fact, if a person does kill because he's confident he won't get caught and he can benefit from the act (say from an insurance policy on a spouse), we universally acknowledge that that act is the act of a particularly evil psychopath. Such cold-blooded murder is recognized universally as particularly abhorrent, not as the working out of the normal human moral calculus. As philosopher David Stove pointed out in his superb book Darwinian Fairytales, this kind of Darwinian nonsense is just slander against humanity. We don't refrain from murder merely because our selfish genes arrange it so, or merely because we are hoping for reciprocal altruism, or merely because we wish to enhance the flourishing of two siblings or eight cousins. We refrain from murder, and we refrain from a multitude of evils, because these acts are wrong, and we know them to be wrong. We are moral agents, not Darwinian robots.

Myers then slanders Wright with this nonsense:

... maybe Wright is just taking a practical approach to winning that lucrative Templeton prize. It's not because the universe drives his argument, but because he too is responding in a self-interested way to local conditions.

Neither I nor Myers have any personal insight into Wright's motives, but I suspect that Wright expressed his views because he believes they are true. I see no reason to impugn his motives. I doubt that Wright is "responding in a self-interested way to local conditions." I don't think that Wright is trying to disseminate his DNA, or to help his cousins flourish, or to get reciprocal perks, or to detect cheaters.

Moral law is an imperative pressed upon us. It is perhaps the single most important influence on our lives. We live in a milieu of moral imperatives and moral choices; we have impressed upon us moral decisions about ourselves, our families, strangers, humanity as a whole, nature, etc. Even those who break the moral code in heinous ways nearly always use moral arguments to justify their acts ("I killed the guy because he had it coming..."; "the pogrom was justified because of all the evil the Jews had done..."). Sages from Moses to Aquinas to Kant have understood that the moral imperative is fundamental to what it is to be human, and they understood that it necessarily has a transcendent cause.

Perhaps no where is the vacuity of new atheism more evident than in Darwinian "explanations" for morality and altruism. Myers' assertion that there is no transcendent moral law -- that we are merely survival robots acting in self-interest -- is just calumny against humanity. Myers betrays a willful ignorance of the real qualities that make us human. Darwinian atheism provides no insight into moral conduct; it's an abdication of insight about man.

The most important criterion in evaluating a metaphysical view is this question: how much ignorance does it demand? That is, how much of reality does it intrinsically deny or fail to explain? Atheism demands deep ignorance. Atheism entails the denial of intelligent agency -- the denial of a Mind -- at the foundation of existence itself. Atheism is a denial of teleology in nature and of a moral code in human affairs. Yet nature is inexplicable without reference to teleology, and we are everywhere and always pressed upon by a moral code that is in us but not from us.