Friday, December 20, 2013

Rick Henderson's profound confusion

Two days ago, Pastor Rick Henderson wrote a blog piece for the Huffington Post Religion page titled "Why there is no such thing as a good atheist."

Yesterday, I responded, using Sam Harris's argument from his best-selling The Moral Landscape to tackle Henderson's charge that one cannot be a "good" atheist because there is no such thing as objective moral values without theism to ground them. That is, I sought to undermine Henderson's case that objective moral values must be rooted in something that atheism cannot claim.

Henderson, though, wrote his piece intentionally slickly. He worded things so that either one must claim atheism--and thus a lack of objective moral values, rendering the atheist not morally good (even if still moral)--or one must claim objective moral values, rendering the atheist poor at atheism. I dismissed this claim for brevity. Today, I'll tackle it, in addition to addressing Henderson's counter-argument against Harris's position.

Before I do so, let me note that his foundational argument about what constitutes atheism has been thoroughly dismantled by Dan Barker, author and co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Those interested in this discussion would do themselves a favor by reading Barker's response to Henderson's original inflammatory piece. Barker does such a good job deconstructing what Henderson conceptualizes as being necessary "affirmations" of atheism (seriously, Pastor Rick, atheism isn't a religion and doesn't operate via affirmations, creeds, or any of the stuff that defines how your worldview works) that I need only touch upon these here.

Here, I want to object to Henderson's arguments about Harris. I also want to explain to him that he doesn't understand atheism. To do so, I will have to step on Barker's toes a little and deal with Henderson's three contentions that he describes as the "unforgiving boundaries of serious-minded atheism." Henderson gives these necessary "affirmations," quoting him here, as
  1. The universe only material.  If the universe is not purely material (natural), then we are conceding the existence of things beyond the natural.  These would be things that exist beyond natural explanation. That is by definition supernatural.  If there is supernatural reality atheism is not true. This is not offered as a proof of Christian theism. 
  2. The universe is scientific.  If the universe is not knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics, we have no confidence in asserting atheism. That would allow for unknown and unexplained forces, i.e. the supernatural or a god. This allows room for agnosticism, but not atheism. 
  3. The universe is impersonal.  If the universe has a consciousness or will, we are affirming pantheism at the very least, so atheism is defeated.  If the universe is guided by a consciousness or will, we are asserting some kind of theism or polytheism, so atheism is defeated.
I had intended to ignore these--and did in my original response--because I feel like they're beneath giving attention to, but since Henderson has doubled-down on them, I'll say something about them, which is to say I will correct them for Henderson. 

One: For all we know the universe is only material, unless we include abstract thinking as some "thing" in the universe.

Whatever may be, betting on a natural universe is a horse than has won every race it's ever run (to paraphrase historian and prolific writer Richard Carrier). While we may be wrong about this, the gap between our claim that the universe seems only to be material and knowledge that it is so is very narrow. At least billions of claims for the supernatural have been made, and in every case we have found errors or hoaxes parading themselves over ultimately natural phenomena mundane to the material universe. We may be wrong about this, but we have no good reasons to bet on it and every good reason not to bet on it.

Furthermore, there is the realm of the abstract, whose ontology (state of "existence") is not yet clearly understood. We have abstract notions like good and evil (and liberty, democracy, and six) that don't exactly exist in the way that the material universe exists but yet seem only to exist (see above paragraph for clarity on this "seem") as products of mental activity. That would make abstract entities and concepts apparently dependent upon the material, neutering Henderson's use of this "affirmation" for atheism.

Two: The universe is describable, and science is the best method we know of to do it. Also, science≠atheism, and while many do, no atheist is required to affirm science.

Henderson reveals his confusion with the use of the word "governed." Natural laws, like the laws of physics, are descriptive, not proscriptive. That is, natural laws do not govern how nature operates. Instead, they provide us with a method of describing the operation of nature. Those descriptions, the "laws of physics," are abstract entities that exist in our minds; they are tools by which we try to understand the world we live in. I go on at great length in my book Dot, Dot, Dot on this point.

Regarding science, I'll just quote Dan Barker's response to Henderson, because it's perfect as it is:
“The universe is scientific.” That doesn’t even make sense. It is only an epistemology or methodology that can be labeled “scientific,” not a thing, and certainly not the universe. What most of us say is that science (observation) is so far the only reliable way to obtain information about reality.
Three: The processes of the universe are impersonal.

Again, I will defer to Dan Barker's response because he does it wonderfully. I include it here only for completeness.
And how could anyone say “The universe is impersonal” when it contains persons? We atheists do assume that the processes in the universe (outside the minds of persons) are impersonal, and that assumption is supported by observation. We atheists are open to new knowledge, and would be astonished to learn that there is “something more” out there. Since everything we know about reality can be expressed in impersonal terms, and since we have no experience or coherent concept of a “person” that is not material, we are justified in insisting that those who believe in a personal creation should assume the burden of proof.
The only point I'll raise here on my own is that humans beings and their psychology are observable parts of the universe, which is to say that we can study ourselves empirically and achieve some understanding of ourselves, whether we have diverse personalities or not.

Rick Henderson is profoundly confused about atheism

In light of the three affirmations he believes that every atheist must make to be a "good" or "serious-minded" atheist, it isn't surprising that Pastor Henderson is deeply confused about atheism. In contrast to these being affirmations, something religious creeds depend upon, these are conclusions that many serious-minded atheists have arrived at by a careful consideration of our circumstances.

Henderson's confusion runs deeper still, though, as he remarks that "Prominent atheists have noted repeatedly and forcefully that there is no basis for meaning in such a universe." 

As Barker noted:
That is plain wrong. Our lives are full of meaning and value. He is confusing “meaning” with “ultimate meaning.” We atheists happily admit that there is no ultimate purpose to our existence, but we think this adds value to life. The truly good news is that there is no purpose of life. There is purpose IN life, and that is the only purpose that matters. An “ultimate purpose” would cheapen life, turning us into servants or slaves to a mind other than our own. That would rob us of our dignity and meaning, making us second-class citizens of the cosmos. Purpose comes from solving real-world problems, not from flattering the ego or submitting to the commands of a dictator.
This brings me back to the point I was leading toward earlier under headings one and two: minds exist. In minds, in the experiences of conscious beings that are sufficiently complex, meaning exists--as an abstraction. We are the authors of our meaning, and if no conscious beings existed to experience and put value on their experiences, meaning would not exist. Imagine, for example, a universe devoid of any consciousness whatsoever but genuinely created and operated by an omni-grade deity. What meaning is there?

And this is precisely Harris's point, a point that Henderson misses completely, saying, "[Harris] has essentially redefined good to mean well-being and evil to mean unnecessary suffering." Harris didn't redefine the words. Even a casual reading of The Moral Landscape makes clear that Harris thoroughly and convincingly argues that the only intelligible way moral terms can be understood is via their impact on the experiences of conscious beings, most pressingly in terms of well-being and, by extension, suffering. In other words, Harris's chief argument is that the objective salience of moral terms like "good" and "evil" exists in assessments of the well being and suffering of conscious beings, something that is true either with or without theism.

Henderson is confused about faith

Henderson had to reach for the Holy Hand Grenade--that is the apologist's tu quoque ("you also") bomb--sooner or later, and he lobs it clumsily by saying Harris has "let the cat out of the bag," meaning
Additionally, this is where Harris commits the same fault of all others who attempt to build a moral argument from reason. You have to assume a moral starting point. That starting point is neither a necessary conclusion within atheism nor demonstrated through evidence. It has to be assumed. That is the same as saying it must be accepted on faith.
No, it is not, and it isn't what Harris did. To reiterate, recall that Harris argued that devoid of the context of the quality of the experience of conscious beings, moral terms like "good" and "evil" don't mean anything. Henderson attempts to level that "Harris is not a good atheist" (half of the title of his essay) for this reason, that Harris has to smuggle in faith to get his job done.

Let's talk about faith, though. The most concise and accurate interpretation of the word faith that I have yet read is philosopher Peter Boghossian's observation that faith is "pretending to know what one doesn't know." As Boghossian is an epistemologist, a philosopher that studies how we know things and what it means to know something, this observation isn't willy-nilly nor is it mere snark.

Henderson is sure to disagree with this understanding of faith, and he's equally sure to be unable to give another that doesn't reduce to this. Regardless, this context is exactly how Henderson is using the term. To wit: "That starting point is neither a necessary conclusion within atheism nor demonstrated through evidence. It has to be assumed. That is the same as saying it must be accepted by pretending to know something he doesn't know."

Nota bene: As Henderson is fond of calling atheists, notably Harris here by implication, "self-contradictory," it will be interesting to see if he rejects Boghossian's definition of faith, given that it's exactly how he used it to make a case against Harris, but this is an aside.

Now, is Harris pretending to know something he doesn't know with regard to moral values? His argument for a "moral starting point" can be summarized in the following way (see The Moral Landscape)
  1. Value exists only in relationship to the experience of conscious beings;
  2. The only intelligible way to talk about moral values, at bottom, is in terms of the well-being and suffering contained within the experiences of those conscious beings; and
  3. The "worst possible state of suffering for everyone" provides a zero point (or nadir) for any experiential metric.
Not only is he not pretending to know something he does not know here, Harris isn't even assuming anything with regard to morality. Without conscious beings to experience, nothing can be valued (rocks cannot value anything); the moral reasoning behind any value can be described in terms of well-being and suffering; and any change from the "worst possible state of suffering for everyone" is necessarily toward less suffering.

What Henderson means to argue here, instead of that Harris is employing faith, is that Harris is smuggling in at least one moral value--that anything that moves us away from the worst possible suffering for everyone is good (and that which moves us toward it is evil). My question for Henderson, though, is what words would he use to describe those moves if not "good" and "evil"? Might I suggest that the reason he doesn't have better words than these (unless using a thesaurus) is because Harris is not pretending to know something he doesn't know to get here?

Henderson, then, misconstrues the acceptance of the definitions of words, be those technically precise or common, for "faith," in his context "pretending to know something he does not know." If this is the case, then Henderson is deeply confused on the notion of faith itself.

Henderson is confused about atheism, again

I withheld this commentary from the previous section of the same theme because his confusion arises within the context of his specific argument against Harris. I want to key in on just part of a sentence Henderson provides, revealing his confusion:
If [Harris's foundational moral value is] not a necessary implication of atheism nor demonstrated by evidence, upon what basis would any good atheist accept this as objectively true? (emphasis added)
The issue is Henderson seems to think it is possible for atheism to necessarily imply something potentially relevant (see his three "affirmations" to see what he thinks it implies). This is incorrect. The only necessary implication of atheism at its absolutely most strident is that whatever the cause of some phenomenon, it is not a god. Atheism doesn't even necessarily repudiate supernaturalism (though most atheists do, for good reasons)! Further, only a few atheists identify as being in the most strident case (famous physicist/author Victor Stenger is one example), and thus the implication of the position most people hold would be that whatever the cause of some phenomenon, it is very unlikely to be a god.

This reveals a confusion about atheism that is likely to have led Henderson to construct his distorted "affirmations" that every "good atheist" must make.

As an aside, note that my argument in the previous section (and previous response) makes the case that Harris's foundational moral value is demonstrated by evidence. That evidence is the experience of conscious beings, which is observable, potentially in tremendous detail. The basis for objectivity, then, is precisely its demonstrability by evidence in combination with Harris's clear argument for well-being as a bedrock moral value (but perhaps Henderson doesn't understand what is meant by "bedrock"?).

Henderson's counterexamples are morally confused

Henderson offers (rather tired) counterexamples to Harris's argument. I'll handle each briefly to finish. First,
If by some evolutionary chance in the future the number psychopath’s [sic] outnumbered the non-psychopaths the continuum of human well-being would look quite different from what it does today. The well-being of psychopaths is expressed in their utter disregard for others and delight in suffering. William Lane Craig points out that this means that the continuum of human well-being is not identically the same as a moral landscape. You can read more on that here. Seen in this light, Harris’ moral landscape could be ever changing, thus not objectively true.
Henderson misses the point, or rather a couple of them. The first is that objectivity doesn't imply or require immutability. It is a fact that some list of specific species of birds spent time in my yard today, and that different birds may frequent my yard in three months after the seasons change does not render such observations non-objective. If it is the case that the moral landscape is describable one way with one collection of conscious minds on the planet now and some other set later, it does not render those descriptions non-objective either.

The second point he misses has to do with the nature of his example. In comparison, perhaps, to what we could be with regard to our care and callousness of others--or more accurately our level of comprehension of other minds--we may very well exist in a situation in which the majority of us are "psychopaths" against some possible future standard. This has little or nothing to do with Harris's point. That point is that the salience of moral values is grounded in optimizing the conscious experience of sentient beings using a metric of well being. The delights of those beings must play some role in their well being, but it isn't the whole picture. Our delight in our rampant consumption of conscious, experiencing cows, pigs, et cetera, puts this point in stark relief, in fact.

No one ever said that sorting out the answers to these kinds of questions isn't hard, Harris's case is simply that it can be done using observable facts about the world. Indeed, it's secondary to Harris's argument that theology even tries to claim morality at all.

Second and third,
Finally, consider 2 cases that could not be considered immoral in Harris’ world:
  • Raping a comatose, terminally ill patient (child or adult) and then pulling the plug. There is no diminishment of well-being for the supposed victim.
  • Stealing $500,000 from a billionaire. What possible diminished well-being could the billionaire experience?
If we were to take Harris’ position seriously what grounds would we have to punish those who committed these acts? We could conceive of many other similar immoral actions in which no perceived well-being is diminished. Yet, we all, or at least most, would feel a sense of justice if we were to convict such persons. Is that sense of justice objectively true or a common delusion?
In the first of these two examples, Henderson shows remarkable horror in the reaches of his imagination, but the question is superficially valid. He underestimates the role of suffering, though, in exactly the same way that people who argue that riding motorcycles without helmets should be legal because it only can result in additional self-harm. In other words, Henderson lacks perspective and is thereby confused.

Consider a world in which raping a comatose, terminally ill patient (child or adult) and then pulling the plug is a reality. Indeed, you live in one now, and now aware of this possibility for yourself and your loved ones, you have incurred suffering that you would not have otherwise, had Henderson not so much as mentioned it as a hypothetical without a single real-world example to give it punch. You now bear in the back of your mind a tiny amount of worry that is likely to diminish the quality of your conscious experience. Thanks, Pastor Rick!

Further, there is the case of potential harm. People are involved in such a gruesome event. There is the family of the comatose victim, who not only has to suffer the untimely death (the plug was pulled, after all, and someone's bound to notice that) of a loved one but also the possibility that evidence will reveal such an act took place. That evidence may be obvious, medical, or a later recantation (perhaps after finding Jesus?) of the perpetrator. Further, the perpetrator, for whatever thrill he received in this act, will carry it. Something so small as a change of heart or mind will lead him to suffer--no doubt justly. A world in which this kind of thing occurs is demonstrably a worse world than a world in which this kind of thing never happens. We call that objective moral grounding.

The billionaire case is more curious in terms of what it reveals about Henderson's assumptions about the world. He assumes that the billionaire will suffer in no way because of the loss of utility of half a million dollars that he incurred, and superficially, again, this might be the case. It isn't certain, though, and it gets worse.

What if, for instance, the billionaire is a philanthropist (e.g. Bill Gates)? That half a million dollars would have eventually gone to reduce the suffering of perhaps thousands or maybe millions of people it is less likely to help if stolen. What if he is an investor that would have invested that money in some endeavor to alleviate suffering in some other way, perhaps via a technological start-up that solves a major, or even minor, world problem? This example, then, is idiotic without even getting into the meat of it.

The meat of it, of course, is the wider implication, which reveals how this example may actually work against Henderson's case. Imagine that we are in a world in which it is considered morally neutral (to say nothing of a moral positive) to steal anything, let alone half a million dollars, from a billionaire. Now things get complicated--too complicated for this already too-long post--because we do not know the ramifications of engaging in such behavior so narrowly defined. The previous paragraph lays out a possible harm, and a possible benefit may come from narrowing the wealth inequality gaps that many societies generate (this, in fact, is likely to be a benefit in societies with high wealth inequality).

Note that it would be conceivable to structure a society so that stealing only from billionaires is not considered illegal or wrong. Of course, it is likely that there are better ways to solve wealth inequality problems and the related suffering than by permitting theft from the most affluent members of a society, but that too would have to be determined empirically, resting upon the qualities of the experiences of the conscious beings living in any of those cases.

Instead of getting into a values argument about that, note that it brings us back to Harris's main point. There are hard moral questions out there that require salient ways to answer them. The only salient means for answering them are in terms of well-being and suffering of conscious beings, which can be observed as facts about the world. The question about stealing from billionaires, for example, cannot be satisfactorily answered by appeals to universal dictates of any kind, especially not those from "God," but must be determined via observation (real or modelled hypothetical).

And so here we see Henderson's faith as a source of his crippling confusion, at least in this particular example. He is assuming that property laws that protect the wealth of individuals are a de facto moral good, perhaps on the basis that he believes a perfectly good deity (that he has no evidence for) laid out a universal dictate that stealing is always evil, regardless of the effects on the experiences of conscious beings. If independent of the effects on those experiences, though, the relevant question that remains is what would make such moral laws "good"?

Rick Henderson is confused, and the source of his confusion appears to lie in the fact that he believes in a supernatural, unknowable grounding for moral values that is necessarily independent of the experiences of conscious beings. To paraphrase Harris again, this is one of the true horrors of religion.

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