Meaning, Morality and Jerry Coyne’s World

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After Lawrence Krauss, Jerry Coyne seems to be the most likely candidate to inherit Richard Dawkins’ status as patron saint of New Atheism. He certainly has the qualifications – he is respected scientist who communicates complicated ideas with enviable ease. His recent dispute with New York Times columnist Ross Douthat reveals that he has none of the disqualifications: his worldview is far from coherent, and he is not above concealing an unconvincing argument behind bluff and bluster. Douthat, quite correctly, drew attention to Coyne’s overconfidence; Coyne, he noted, works under the lazy assumption that his “worldview has no weak points whatsoever, no internal contradictions or ragged edges, no cracks through which a critic’s wedge could end up driven.”

Criticising New Atheism presents a writer with a target rich environment,  so Douthat focused his fire on three points. First, he contended that there is little room for meaning or morality in a “purposeless, purely physical universe, in which human life is accidental, human history directionless, and human consciousness probably an illusion”. Second, he pointed out that the scientific picture of the world is far from complete, so Coyne’s confidence that it will justify atheism is misplaced. Finally, he pointed out that

…for a man who believes in “a physical and purposeless universe” with no room for teleology, Coyne seems remarkably confident about what direction human history is going in, and where it will end up.”

In a future post we’ll examine secularist myths about history. For now, we’ll content ourselves to critiquing Coyne responses to Douthat’s deconstruction of atheist morality(which can be read here and here.)

Coyne argues that he would rather base ethics on science and reason than “the dictates of an imaginary being”. This rather misunderstands Douthat’s point. When Christians argue that God is the ground of morality, they are not arguing that a revelation from God –the Bible, for example – is necessary to ground morality. Nor are they arguing that in the absence of a reliable secular moral code we should bet on religion.

Rather, the theist is pointing out that atheism cannot explain the existence of moral values and obligations. The simple fact of the matter is that moral concepts have great explanatory power and moral experience is a central feature of human existence. Any worldview which cannot adequately account for morality is deeply unconvincing. Coyne seems to understand the challenge and makes an attempt to justify his belief in moral value:

I want to live in a world where people promote the well-being of our fellows. That is what I see as “moral” behavior. This kind of morality is justified by its results, but one thing it is not is circular.”

So, Coyne begins with his subjective preference for a world in which we promote the well-being of our fellow humans. Of course, Coyne also believes that every human is an“evolved collection of molecules” which “takes pleasure in certain activities and feels that it has goals.” He is not sure about the origins of altruism: “My own suspicions are that it’s partly genetic and partly cultural”.

So, to be a little more accurate, Coyne begins with his own feelings and goals, which are, in his view,  merely the product of his genes and environment. This is hardly the basis for rationally compelling ethical system. Moreover, to get something approximating morality Coyne must show why his preferences should be binding on all human beings.

However, Coyne immediately adds that his moral preferences are justified by their results. In other words, some of his preferences are binding on others because they make for a more rational world. We ought to protect the weak and poor because we would seek protection if we were weak and poor. Oppression is wrong because it “it creates a society in which disorder remains, but is hidden and suppressed.” This is detrimental to the “well-being of society”. So,  despite his protestations and best efforts, Coyne has identified the ‘good’ with ‘whatever benefits society’ (or in the longer run, our species).

Prima facie, this seems reasonable. If most people live by the rules of morality then most people will benefit. However, we wonder ask if Coyne could tell us a little more about his vision of a beneficial society. Is it just a place that maximises the satisfaction of its citizens preferences. Or should only certain citizens have their preferences satisfied? If so, how would he choose? In other words, who are the losers and who are the winners in Coyne’s ideal society? Without those details his proposals are empty.

More crucially, even with those details Coyne would still fail to have captured the core meaning of morality. First, we might ask why we should value our passion for the common good and a rational society over our passion for selfishness. If a touch of ambition and a little selfishness leads to a life of good wine, good books and good food, why shouldn’t we indulge ourselves? After all, in the long run we’re all dead. The species is doomed. Selfishness can be calculating and manipulative – so if we live in an amoral, uncaring universe it is just as rational as altruism. And why should we worry about what we might have wanted if we had been poor? The fact is, we’re not, and we only have one life to lead.

Set the immoral passions aside. Why should we cultivate compassion when we could use that time to develop our wit or our culinary skills? After all, those are perfectly rational goals. Our time on earth is limited and we cannot pursue all of our goals. Now, a central feature of morality is that it over-rides other considerations. Moral obligations impose themselves; they demand that we set our other goals aside.  So why should we give preference to our moral goals? Coyne has no answer. He merely has a set of evolved desires, and not all of those desires are for the good of others.

Second, we cannot reduce morality to the good of the species. Suppose we discovered an intelligent, alien race, very much like our own. Imagine that this species has survived through cannibalism and other cruel practices. Further suppose that the stability of their society was founded on public displays of infanticide and ritualised torture. Finally, imagine that this race argued that “the good” was whatever promoted their survival.

Even if it could be demonstrated that these practices satisfied the majority of the desires held by members of that race, and even if it was demonstrated that their murderous and cruel activities allowed them to thrive in their environment, we would not say that their practices were “good”. The universe would be a better place without such a species in it.  This is not merely an abstract thought experiment. Humans do not merely desire compassion and love; if history teaches us anything, it is that we often prefer progress, war, sated lust and gluttony to helping our fellows.

Hitler’s vision of the “good life” glorified war, hatred and ruthlessness. “Moral” visions that promote greed, naked power or cruel oppression remain deeply wicked no matter what material benefits they bring. This is why Coyne must argue that such societies are a thing of the past; that some moral intuitions are atavistic, a hangover from the small social groups that “dominated 99% of our evolutionary history.” Xenophobia, for example, may be one such “vestigial behaviour”. It is an attitude which is unhelpful in our technologically sophisticated global community. Therefore it should be rejected.

However, suppose Coyne’s optimism is misplaced. Suppose somewhere, some day soon, someone presses a red button and Intercontinental Ballistic Missile’s rain down on several continents. Suppose we end up living in small, isolated, social groups once more. Would those older moral intuitions suddenly become good? Could ruthlessness suddenly become a virtue if modern society collapsed? Or suppose some jolly clever theorist produced equations and statistics which provided strong evidence that too much compassion was detrimental to humanities progress and survival. Would Coyne reconsider his evaluation of altruism? Hardly. Moral values go too deep; they are as real as matter and thought, and do not need to be justified with statistics.

We must also ask if Coyne’s view of human nature coheres with his moral convictions. Consider the statement “the sadistic torture of children is wrong”. That statement expresses a rule – “don’t torture!”- but it also appeals to a value. The underlying value, on which the rule is based, is the preciousness of innocent human life. To be genuinely morally precious, the value of innocent life must be universal. If something is good, it is good everywhere and always. The value cannot be the product of our desires. Bloodshed does not become good because a society decides to worship war; bravery does not become bad because we prefer life and comfort to compassion and sacrifice. The value of human must be part of the “furniture of the universe.”

How can we explain why each individual person is of immense, objective value? Why does the dignity of the person “trump” the long term interests of society? Here Coyne is extraordinarily unconvincing: he certainly does not allow humans the cosmic, metaphysical status that the theistic religions grant us:

If there is any “drama” in creation, most of it does not involve people at all. There’s the Big Bang, all those other galaxies, black holes, exploding stars, and, on our planet, evolution, on whose branching bush we are but one tiny twig.”

If the human race as a whole is insignificant, it is even worse for the human individual: each self is “a neuronal illusion”. Why should we value illusions? Coyne has no answer, yet stubbornly insists that each human life has meaning in his worldview:

…we make our own purposes, and they’re real. Right now my purpose is to write this piece, and then I’ll work on a book I’m writing, and later I’ll have dinner with a friend. Soon I’ll go to Poland to visit more friends.”

This misses the point, and it does so spectacularly. First, if Coyne’s worldview is accurate each of those purposes  can be eliminated in favour of a more scientifically accurate account. After all “agency is an illusion… a remarkable illusion confected by evolution through the arrangement of our neurons”. If that is the cas, then every goal and desire is merely an event in or function of the brain.  Coyne has an appetite for crude, uninformed reductionism. Elsewhere he has explained away beauty as “an evolved neural response” and love as “a neural and chemical condition evolved to facilitate bonding.”

Second, when humans seek a life with meaning and purpose, they are asking for rather more than a life in which they make a few choices.  Humans yearn for significance, the knowledge that we matter on some fundamental scale. But Coyne confuse discovering the good life with creating the self- perception that we are living the good life. The good life to Coyne is just a value projected on to the world by our cognitive systems. It does not correspond to any fact outside human psychology. Yet humans typically seek a good greater than themselves.

It is a rational enterprise to seek a good and meaningful life. Yet Coyne tells us that this life is an illusion. Now, if we cannot live a good and meaningful life, then it is hardly irrational to abandon the quest to live a moral life. After all, we can only make the world a little more pleasant for a handful of cosmically insignificant creatures for a cosmically insignificant timescale. Why shouldn’t we just allow that morality is a useful fiction, a pleasant game that we can play from time to time to satiate those pesky altruistic desires that evolution has foisted on us? If someone wants to be a moral saint, well, good for them. The rest of us can safely settle for a life of selfish-capitalism and crude consumerism. After all, where’s the harm?

To clarify: the argument here is not “if atheism is true we are on a slippery slope to a nihilistic society. Therefore, we should try to believe in some religion.” To repeat the argument is “moral experience is a central feature of human existence. Any worldview which cannot adequately account for morality is deeply unconvincing.” And Coyne’s atheism cannot explain the central features of morality. Of course, he believes in moral obligations and the significance of the individual. He just can’t explain them.

Does the theistic worldview do any better? Arguably, yes. If atheism is true the only value that we have is the value that we choose to give to ourselves. And what the human race gives, the human race can take away. By contrast, God would be a transcendent source of moral value: the very source we need to make sense of ethics. If everything else depends on God for its existence then the value that God has for everything else cannot be surpassed.

God would be supremely rational, and his power cannot be limited by the irrational and chaotic effects of evil. The earth and the opinions of human beings will pass away into the void. God’s values are eternal. His judgments can be trusted, and his worth is inestimable. If atheism is true we are unplanned and insignificant on a cosmic scale.

On theism we have immense significance because the creator of the Cosmos values us, made us to be like him, and can enter into a relationship with us. We have a great value because we are significant to God. There is no room for morality in Coyne’s world; therefore his worldview is unconvincing. In God’s world, morality makes sense. That does not prove that one particular theistic religion is true – but it should give the thinking sceptic moment’s pause before accepting the views of a writer who casually and glibly dismisses them all.

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