18 October 2011

Nugent's Nonsense: Spilt Ink in the Irish Times, Part 3

I'm increasingly convinced that either the Irish Times has a surplus of paper and ink or else Michael Nugent knows where some very embarassing bodies are buried, because his latest piece on atheism is even worse than his previous ones, and it's hardly doing the paper any credit to have that wasting space on its pages.

Entitled 'Atheists and religious alike seek to identify foundation of morality', this week's article addresses the issue of morality, and soon gets to the heart of the matter: either morality is something subjective that we make up or else it is something objective that exists independently of us; in practical terms, he says, this matters little as we all have the same task, that being to decide together what we believe to be right and wrong.

I'm not sure whether this is of quite such practical irrelevance as Nugent feels, not least because if morality is an objective reality, rather than a mere matter of opinion, then this invites serious questions of how such an intangible thing could be an objective reality. I'm also not sure how he envisages us getting together to decide what we all believe to be right and wrong: if people on the far side of the world decide it's perfectly moral for them to kill baby girls while they're still in the womb, who are we to tell them that this is morally wrong unless we believe that there is an objective morality which transcends cultures and fashions?



Enter the Straw Men...
Still, dodging the fact that a transcendent morality is an idea with serious implications, and that an absence of transcendent morality would reduce morality to the basic and toothless principle that it's nice to be nice, Nugent pooters on:
'So what criteria should we use? Most religious people believe that their god (small "g") dictates what is right and wrong. Most atheists believe that we have to work it out ourselves.'
Yes, there's that category mistake again, resolutely confusing the ideas of 'God' and 'god' just like he's done in the last two articles. You'd really think that by now somebody would have pointed out to him how different the two concepts are. Or else you'd think that if somebody had pointed this out, he'd have understood. Maybe he's just not very bright.

That aside, though, watch how Mr Nugent lines up his straw men. The idea that most religious people believe that their deity dictates what's right and wrong and that they don't have to work it out themselves -- aside from spiking the argument very quickly and very conveniently on one horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma -- is complete tosh. Religious people, even when believing that they've somehow received moral guidance from their deity, nonetheless have to spend a lot of time wrestling with moral issues. That's why moral theology tends to be a huge field of study. Matters aren't simple, and most religious people are smart enough to realise this.

What's more, Christians tend to recognise that all of us do and can work out morality for ourselves, with the proviso that at some level God defines our morality and empowers our moral behaviour, regardless of whether or not we acknowledge his role in this. We believe there's a Natural Law, a transcendent morality to which we should all subscribe, and that we're gifted with the faculties necessary to discern this transcendent morality. Look at Romans 1:19-20, which says: 'For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made,' and 1 John 4:19, which recognises our moral behaviour as an expression of God's love 'We love, because he first loved us'.

Nugent's line that religious people believe their god dictates what's right and wrong doesn't really hold up for Christians, as it happens; I can't speak for devotees of other religions, but Christians have always recognised God as not merely being a being who dictates what's right and wrong, but a being who is the defining expression of rightness. That's what Aquinas's 'fourth way' is about: that we recognise an ultimate standard of goodness, which we call 'God'. This is the running theme of 1 John, as it happens: not that God tells us what's good, but that God is love, and that as such all goodness is an expression of him, empowered by his love.


Nugent's First Difficulty
As far as Michael's concerned, there are two problems with the religious view of morality -- or the religious view as he understands it, which is of course not quite the same thing: 
'Firstly, different people believe that different gods are telling them that different things are right and wrong. Even when people believe in the same god, they often believe that this same god is telling them that different things are right and wrong.'
The first sentence doesn't really work, not least because it rests on the idea of different gods. Religious people tend to believe there's only really one God, and that he communicates just one morality; if we differ on God's nature or indeed on the nature of the morality he communicates, this is merely because people have misunderstood, for one reason or another.

And no, this isn't a new way of thinking. The Romans did it all the time: they didn't think a Roman god led away the souls of the dead Romans and a German one led away the souls of dead Germans; they instead thought Mercury and Wodin were the same deity, worshipped under different names. Likewise they didn't think there were lots of different sun gods or thunder gods, handing over duties when in someone else's territory; they assumed a basic pantheon which was understood differently from culture to culture.

As for the next sentence, all Nugent's really saying is that religious people have to think about what morality entails, and what might constitute moral or immoral courses of action. I'd hardly call this a problem. It's only a problem if you take the view, as Mr Nugent appears to do, that religion is something that should stop our thought; the reality, in my experience, is that it gives our thoughts a reliable foundation.


Michael's Second Difficulty
Nugent's next point really brings home the significance of the category error he's been making throughout this series:
'Secondly, there is the question that Plato raised in his dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro: if you believe in a god, what criteria does your god use to decide what is right and wrong? Do gods cause random torture to be wrong, based on an arbitrary decision, or do they identify that random torture is wrong, based on independent criteria? If it is the former, then they could just as easily have decided that random torture is right, and so morality is arbitrary. If it is the latter, then there is a foundation for morality that exists independently of gods.'
The Euthyphro dilemma asks a very good question in the context of gods, such as the Greek Olympians or the Norse Aesir, but it's a false dilemma when dealing with the concept of God, as understood by pretty much every religious person who might read the Irish Times. Remember Aquinas's fourth way? God is the ultimate standard of goodness, or, as the New Testament tells us God is truth and God is love.As such, Christians don't believe that God either decrees or discerns what is right; rather, God embodies -- for what of a better term -- rightness, and rightness is an expression of God.


Dodging a Bullet
Look at that second problem Michael thought he could see in religious approaches to moral questions. Embracing the false dilemma that the Euthyphro proposes for Christians, Nugent says that gods, if they exist, must either decree what is  right, based on arbitrary criteria, or discern what is right, based on independent criteria. This, of course, is far less of a problem for God than it is for us. We're faced with this question: do we decide for ourselves what we decree good and bad, or do we discern it based on some independent criteria? And how does Michael Nugent express this? Watch...
'This brings religious people into the same place as atheists in seeking to identify the foundation of morality. Many atheists believe that the best criteria to use is: what effect does this action have on the well-being or suffering of sentient beings?'
Yep, he dodges the question of whether morality might, in fact, be wholly arbitrary and instead assumes that morality is objective and has a foundation which we can identify. This isn't something that just can be assumed if you're an honest atheist: I know quite a few and they are quite open about the fact that, in principle, it makes no sense for them to claim that there is an objective and binding morality. It's Hume's famous is--ought problem: you cannot construct an 'ought' from a universe consisting solely of 'is'. Bertrand Russell used to lament this fact, saying that he wanted to be able to condemn as immoral the actions of the Nazis, but his philosophy didn't allow him to do so.

And so, having evaded the very serious possibility that there may in fact be no objectively binding and discernible morality, and that what we call morality may simply be a cultural phenomenon, the collective names for a whole matrix of fashionable social codes differing according to time and place, he turns to Sam Harris as the voice of authority.


Sam Harris clearly trumps Plato
It's bizarre, isn't it? Last week we had him babbling about Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking's latest work, while this week it's the Euthyphro Dilemma -- misunderstood -- and Sam Harris. It's as though he has a shelf entitled 'Stuff That Backs Me Up'. I wonder how much he's read that challenges him. How familiar is he with the work of scientists who find religious belief and science entirely compatible? Has he read Aquinas, perhaps with the help of Edmund Feser, say? Has he read any Plato other than the Euthyphro?  How familiar is he with Aristotle? Given what he goes on to say, it really looks as though he's read no Aristotle and only looked at Plato with a view to dragooning him in support of his own views...
'Many atheists believe that the best criteria to use is: what effect does this action have on the well-being or suffering of sentient beings? The neurobiologist Sam Harris examines this in his recent book, The Moral Landscape. He argues that the worst possible world is one in which all conscious beings are suffering to the maximal extent for no reason. He argues that, in principle, every step away from that world is right, and every step towards that world is wrong.'
Now, in The Moral Landscape Harris argues that there are indeed moral facts, relevant to the well-being of conscious beings, and that these facts can be discerned by taking the consequentialist line that the moral argument is that which maximises the most well-being. Leaving aside the huge question of what constitutes consciousness, it's notable that Harris makes no effort in the book to define well-being. Given that this is the crucial variable in his hypothesis, that's quite an oversight, and it's striking that Mr Nugent doesn't seem to be aware -- or at the very least to be bothered -- by it.

That aside, Harris basically reduces morality to a crude question of what produces the most good, something that'd have caused Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle to raise sceptical eyebrows. The fact that Nugent seems not remotely uneasy with this suggests that he's hardly read Plato at all, which leaves me wondering why he felt so confident wheeling out the Euthyphro dilemma, though it does explain why he was oblivious to its irrelevance to the question he was asking. The Euthyphro Dilemma isn't a rhetorical trick, after all; it's a serious question, that has an important place in Platonic thought, and Mr Nugent really should do something to find out what Plato thought about natural goodness in general, perhaps by reading the Charmides, the Lysis, and of course both the Symposium and the Republic.

And then he should look at Aristotle, to figure out where Aristotle disagrees with Plato, and why. He might like Aristotle.

That's not the only problem with Harris' thesis, of course. One of the major problems with it is that he effectively denies that we have free will, something which is necessary to the whole concept of moral action. Nobody in their right mind ever tries to argue that the weather is either moral or immoral, save insofar as it can be useful, because weather is a physical phenomenon, wholly incapable of controlling itself.

Harris tries to get round this by talking of the illusion of the illusion of free will, but nothing he says refutes the idea that if we're purely and exclusively physical beings then our thoughts must likewise be purely and exclusively physical phenomena, subject to all the laws of physics. If he's right, then our wills are not free; they might be free from coercion, but they're not even marginally free from causation, and there's no way we can claim that 'we' control them, as 'we' are ourselves nothing more than physical phenomena. Thought, will, and identity: all three, to a materialist worldview, are simply physical phenomena, no more meaningful than the wind in the trees.


And Religion is Bad because?
Nugent takes the view that in light of Harris' argument, religion distracts us from discerning right and wrong because, he says:
'... religious commands are not based on maximising the well-being or minimising the suffering of sentient beings.  Instead, they corrupt actual real-life morality with imaginary ideas of supernatural souls and imaginary consequences in an imaginary afterlife.'
He seems to be opposed to religion because it's not a narrow consequentialism, but I really don't think that works, not least because there are all manner of moral dilemmas that Harris' thesis won't help us in, not least because he never defines, and thus cannot quantify 'well-being'. Saying that imaginary ideas of souls, consequences, and an afterlife corrupt the argument is a fair point as long as it's the case that such things are imaginary; if they're not imaginary, then taking them into account clearly doesn't vitiate morality in any sense.

Frankly, even if we take the view that we can't be sure, then the jury's out. Religious ideas must have been responsible for at least as much good as evil. Take, as one obvious example, how the American Declaration of Independence declares, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.' The equality of man, and man's most basic rights are rooted in the idea of man as the creation of God. Our modern conceptions of human rights are based on Enlightenment values of such, which were in turn based upon older religious values, notably the key one that we are all made in God's image.

Look at the Greeks, for instance, and you won't find a trace of such an idea. The whole idea of universal rights is, in essence, a religious one, and is, more specifically, a Christian one. Others have adopted it, and treated it as an axiom in its own right, but good luck deriving such a principle in a purely material universe.


A Facile Contrast
He goes on:
'Certainly, the Christian Bible distracts us from identifying right and wrong, because the Christian god conveys instructions that we intuitively know are wrong. The Bible says we should love our neighbour, but stone him to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath.'
I've already talked in my first piece about Mr Nugent and Atheist Ireland, about how this leaves me wondering whether Mr Nugent is even aware that not all Christians use the same Bible, so I won't get into that here, barring to growl at this 'god' nonsense again.

More importantly, there's something rather pernicious in how he orders the two Biblical injunctions. Seven of the eight Biblical instances of the phrase 'love your neighbour' are from the New Testament, unlike the Old Testament reference in Numbers to a man being stoned for gathering sticks on the Sabbath. The sentence would read rather differently if its elements were more honestly placed in their proper order.

The Old Testament is basically about two things: what's wrong with the world, and how God readied the Jewish people for the coming of Christ. As such, Old Testament morality is often best understood as the morality of an army on the march, where discipline is everything, utterly necessary to maintain the cohesion of the group while it's en route to its destination; I say that not merely theologically, but historically and anthropologically too, and from having studied the seemingly trivial concerns of modern armies and how they build esprit de corps. Extreme punishments and rulings over when and how certain actions can be carried out fit naturally into that model. It's in that light we need to think of the injunction against working on the Sabbath.

The New Testament, however, changes things. It's been a precept of the Church from the beginning that the Old Testament must be read with reference to the New Testament, holding that the meaning of the Scriptures cannot be discerned save when understood as a unity within the Church, read by the light of Christ. Jesus expanded the definition of neighbour beyond a narrow Jewish identity, and also opened up the Sabbath by saying that it was made for man, and man was not made for it. Contrasts such as this can't simply be set up to be mocked: Christians, as a rule, have throughout history been smart enough to notice apparent paradoxes.


And Finally...
Michael wraps up by saying:
'Religion assumes that man is incapable of making moral decisions without supernatural guidance. But we are. It is a skill, and our understanding of it evolves as we practise empathy and reciprocity.'
A fairly sweeping generalisation about religion there, don't you think? Of course, 'religion' assumes no such thing, because religion is a word we use to describe a range of practices and beliefs and so forth; it's not a person, or even a corporate entity, capable of assuming anything.

That aside, Michael sets up a spectacularly false contrast, wholly misrepresenting religion to suit his own purposes.

Certainly it can be said that Christians have always held that we can make moral decisions without guidance through any kind of supernatural revelation. The basic moral law is part of nature, as I've said, such that we can discern it through our reason, and we are all able to love, being empowered to do so by God's own love: we love, because he loved first.

1 comment:

Donum Vitae said...

Very interesting. One wonders if Michael is actually searching? Hardly. But if he could be honest in his inquiry, he will find the answers. But if he is not honest, he won't.

The answer to thinking out basic moral law lies in the truth. I'm a firm believer that if a person commits themselves to simply telling the truth for a period of a minimum of two years, they will find the truth. One does not have to be a believer to start out on this road but if they persevere they will end out finding the Truth.