Saturday, August 18, 2007

A new use for old absolutes?

Chris at “mixing memory” has unearthed a study conducted on Princeton undergrads which provides an insight into how much weighting of “objective truth” we assign to our ethical positions. Read it all here

The surveyed respondents established a scale from agreed objective fact (Mars is the smallest planet in our galaxy) through matters of opinion (CNN better for news than fox) and matters of convention (wearing pajamas to lectures) to matters of ethics (discharging a firearm on campus) against which to measure the objective content of their ethical judgements.

It turns out that we are much more likely to believe our ethics to be objectively true if we are Religious then if non Religious.

“In sum, then, there don't appear to be very many (if there are any) ethical beliefs for which everyone believes there is an objective justification. Instead, for some beliefs, a majority of people believe they have an objective justification, but for others, very few believe that to be the case. It would seem, then, that while some people are more objectivist than others, few if any are objectivists about all ethical beliefs. Religion is the most reliable predictor of objectivism, though even it can't turn people into objectivists with regard to all ethical beliefs. Pragmatism and "self-identity" also lead to some level of ethical objectivism.”
Western religious people are therefore more likely to define some (though never all) of their ethical positions as objectively true whilst non Religious people tend towards subjectivism i.e. they see ethics as being more a matter of opinion.

History – mother of ironies, now provides us with a religious group who have no objective basis for their belief retaining a strong bias in favour of the objective truth for their ethics whilst Atheists who have a strong objective basis for their non belief but who nonetheless exhibit a strong bias in favour of subjectivity in their ethics.

At a time when Dawkins, Grayling and Hitchens have renewed the assault on God and the objective falsity of Religious belief this is an interesting confirmation of the second line Religious defense – the risk of a great ethical unmooring.

G.K. Chesterton’s tag “Those who don’t believe in God don’t just believe in nothing they will believe in anything” is the opening line of many of the replies from the western religious to the new militancy of atheists.

Roger Scruton has isolated the human need for the “sacred” which cannot and will not be provided by an exclusively rational construct but which underlies (inter alia) this anchored ethical foundation.

Norman Geras has countered that such a sense of anchored ethics can be generated out of the (a – religious) solidarity of humanism.

If the evolution of aesthetics is any guide to the future evolution of ethics then Scruton may have won the point. God may not have the best arguments but he still has all the best tunes.

British Socialist Humanists of a previous era assembled singing Blakes “Jerusalem” – Christians have never generally felt the need to open proceedings with the “internationale”. The aesthetic achievement of Mozart and Bach’s masses have no discernable equivalent in the humanist movement and nor do the paintings of Michelangelo, El Greco and Caravaggio.

As a prototype for the benefits of dissolving the sacred (and with it the objective criteria of excellence) and replacing them with the secular (and therefore a subjective criteria of excellence) Aesthetics offers little encouragement to the development of a Godless but “anchored” ethics of the type Norman Geras posits.

This doesn’t mean that retaining an objective core to ethical criteria is dependent on the “sacred” but it is suggestive of a strong connection in my opinion.

Of course a final judgement cannot be pronounced on what is after all an unfolding process. The historical interlude in which Humanist ethics have had a significant role to play is tiny when compared to the long stretch in which Christian ethics has dominated. Even in aesthetics it is hardly true that the art of the early church matched the glories of the Rennaissance centuries later.

Perhaps the ceasefire between believers and non believers in the West was based therefore on no absolute victory but rather an unacknowledged contract. In this settlement the Religious tacitly abandoned revelation as the sole and final source of truth. Most conceded not only the truth of scientific discovery they even accepted the absolute human value of its predicates in rationalism and free enquiry as well as in its methods of falsification. Meanwhile non religious humanists were happy to concede the ethical basis of much of the Mosaic law and even to publicly endorse the ethics contained in the Beatitudes.

Thus a constructive “respect” opened a safe historical space for the development of the storm proof anchorage for the godless ethics that Humanists were aspiring to create.

But the matter has become both urgent and divisive once more because of the rise of extraneous obscurantism both religious (Islamic pre modern) and secular (secular post modern). Whatever fond hopes may have been held by liberal humanists for the future of godless, but objective truth, the present is clearly not that time.

The wrath of Jihadist Islamism has no contemporary equivalent in Western Christianity (unless fundamentalist Christians conducting suicide bombings or beheadings in the American mid west are unreported). Osama specifically proclaimed the inevitable victory of his armed assault on the West precisely because the West believes in nothing but life and his followers believe in dying for God. He says that an objective belief in a something will always win in a fight with a subjective belief in a nothing. This view and the violence it has underwritten provides an exhibition of the inhumane lunacy of absolutist religious belief. This has only confirmed the prejudices of the humanists even if it has also horrified most Muslims and Christians.

The response of Grayling, to take but one example, is to kick the domesticated Christian dog for the farting of the feral jihadist wolf. So Grayling is, in the end, only a very timid sort of iconoclast - safely harsh on the Pope and prudently silent on the Ayatollahs. The object lesson of Salman Rushdie, Theo Van Gogh and the Danish cartoonists has been quietly absorbed in both common room and editorial suite. This fear has generated the unwarranted silence and even "respect" inadequately concealed under the newly minted pseudo doctrine of "islamaphobia". Hitchens, Geras and others honourably excepted, this cowardly misdirection of abuse is all too emblematic of the Western humanist response to the Jihadist challenge.

Simultaneously a systemic attack on objective truth has been successfully mounted from within Western academe itself. Cannibalising it’s greatest achievement, sections of Academe have proclaimed Scientific truth to be a myth and (worse) a “power construct” and has supported the claims of the "disciplines" of the "dispossessed other", including the hocus pocus of herbal remedy, which are "re-evaluated" and pronounced to be the full equals of the demonstrated scientific valour of “western” medicine.

Meanwhile the same slippery tropes are used to invalidate liberal and humanist ethics. The beliefs of the jihadist “other” are not only beyond criticism by liberals but they are even placed beyond legitimate academic examination or exposition as these formerly sacred enterprises of knowledge in liberal education are now properly to be seen as an “imperialist plot” to subjugate the “other”.

Ethics are thus rendered entirely subjective and situational (with no objective content whatsoever) and by and large the liberal humanists have proved amazingly defenseless against what, on the face of it, is an absurdly lightweight attack. Liberal Subjectavists are defenseless against post modern relativists. They seem to lack any vocabulary of conviction with which to defend their own liberal achievement. Whilst this generality certainly does not include Norman Geras it is nonetheless true that “right on” liberal humanists, in their tens of thousands resemble cattle gently ruminating their way through this post modern pap on their way to the abbatoir.

Meanwhile Western Religious believers contemplate this partial collapse of the humanist project not with satisfaction at the discomfiting of their old tormentors but with horror and mounting rage. Not for them the equivocations of the humanists, they have a ready made vocabulary and they not only know but can give the name to both evil and heresy when they see them.

So as the premodernists of Jihadist fundamentalism join in alliance with the post modernists of the West the liberal consensus of science and ethics is under strong obscurantist challenge. If we were to make an (inadmissable) extrapolation of Chris's findings above it may be that the majority of the vigorous defenders of the liberal tradition are either religious or from a religious background.

Dawkins and Grayling may think the religious are “small of brain” but they may yet have cause to be grateful for the fact that they are also “strong of arm”.


featurespoon said...

An excellent post which does not shrink from the very real problems western civilization faces. I agree with a lot of it.

However I would take issue with something said in passing:
"Atheists who have a strong objective basis for their non belief"

I don't think that that is justifiable. Atheists must believe that humanity arose as a result of time and chance, and that applies to the atheist's own cognitive processes as well. So how can they be sure that their belief is true? As C S Lewis put it:

"If the solar system was brought about by an accidental collision, then the appearance of organic life on this planet was also an accident, and the whole evolution of Man was an accident too. If so, then all our thought processes are mere accidents - the accidental by-product of the movement of atoms. And this holds for the materialists’ and astronomers’ as well as for anyone else’s. But if their thoughts - i.e., of Materialism and Astronomy - are merely accidental by-products, why should we believe them to be true? I see no reason for believing that one accident should be able to give a correct account of all the other accidents."

It seems to me that rationalism is hoist on its own petard.

Tony Maher said...



"I don't think that that is justifiable. Atheists must believe that humanity arose as a result of time and chance, and that applies to the atheist's own cognitive processes as well."

Atheism is a belief in knowledge and demonstration. They accept the limits this imposes but they don't feel obliged to believe anything that cannot be demonstrated to be true (including the "accidental universe" proposition).

The validation of reason and knowledge lies in it's product and not in any theoretical construct. This instrumental approach means that for atheists knowledge justifies itself.

Human knowledge is finite in an infinite Universe - and atheists aren't going to break their heart because they have no complete answer to the questions of life the universe and everything.

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