June 28, 2012 § 3 Comments
In the series of extracts I am publishing from my book-that-is-almost-finished on the history of moral thought we have reached Chapter 18, which explores the contemporary debates about the relationship between science and morality, from Joshua Greene’s work to Sam Harris’ arguments. This extract is from the section that unpacks Alex Rosenberg’s arguments about morality in his book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.
The desire to root morality in science derives from a laudable aspiration to demonstrate the redundancy of religion to ethical thinking. The irony is that the classic argument against looking to God as the source of moral values – Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma – is equally applicable to the claim that science is, or should be, the arbiter of good and evil. In his dialogue Euthyphro, Plato has Socrates ask the famous question: Do the gods love the good because it is good, or is it good because it loved by the gods? If the good is good simply because gods choose it, then the notion of the good becomes arbitrary. If on the other hand, the gods chooses the good because it is good, then the good is independent of the gods.
The same dilemma faces contemporary defenders of the claim that science defines moral values. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 6, 2012 § 44 Comments
Like a lion, perhaps, in a den of Daniels, I gave a talk last week on ‘Why I am an atheist’ to theology students at Bristol’s Trinity College. It was an enjoyable event, and hopefully helped me to think through and sharpen my arguments (though not, I suspect, to change anyone’s mind). Here’s the transcript.
There are three kinds of arguments that an atheist can make in defence of the insistence that no God exists. First, he or she can argue against the necessity for God. That is, an argument against the claim that God is necessary to explain both the material reality of the world and the values by which we live. Second, he or she can argue against the possibility of God, against the idea that a being such as God is either logically or materially possible. And third, an atheist can argue against the consequences of belief in God. This is the claim that religious belief has pernicious social, political or moral consequences and that the world would be better off without such belief. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 14, 2011 § 7 Comments
Continuing the series of extracts from the book that I am writing on the history of moral thought, we have reached Chapter 10, which looks at the Renaissance and the Reformation and at the impact of both on moral philosophy. This excerpt is about Martin Luther’s theology and about the ambiguities of the Reformation, an intensely conservative religious reaction against the spirit of reason that Aquinas had introduced into Christianity that was nevertheless also the source of a radically libertarian revolution, the harbinger of a liberal modernity.
‘Here I stand. I can do no other’. Martin Luther’s famous response to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, defending his right to challenge the authority of Pope on the basis of his personal convictions sounds to a modern reader as a ringing endorsement of personal conscience, individual freedom and free will. Whether Luther actually spoke those words remains uncertain. What is certain, though, is that it was never his intention to defend freedom of will. Luther dismissed as blasphemy the very concept. ‘Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin’, as he put in his Heidelberg Disputation, a famous debate within the Augustinian Order. Indeed he barely believed in any kind of freedom. When Luther insisted that ‘I can do no other’, he was defending not his freedom of will but his lack of freedom to believe and to act. He could do no other because he was compelled to do as he had.
September 23, 2011 § 3 Comments
I was asked by the The Browser, a wonderful, indispensable website that trawls the web and fishes out some of the best writing, to choose, for its ‘Five books’ section, five books (naturally) on morality without God. Here’s my somewhat eclectic list and the interview that accompanies it.
Many believers think that the only way to be truly moral is to follow a religion which teaches us morality. How would you respond?
One of the great selling points of religions – in particular the monotheistic religions – throughout their history has been their importance as a bedrock of moral values. Without religious faith, runs the argument, we cannot anchor our moral truths or truly know right from wrong. Without belief in God we will be lost in a miasma of moral nihilism. ‘To remove God’, as the theologian Alister McGrath has put it, ‘is to eliminate the final restraint on human brutality.’
Looking back on history one might question just how successful God has been as ‘the final restraint on human brutality’. What really concerns me, however, is the way that religious concepts of morality degrade what it means to be human by diminishing the importance of human agency in the creation of a moral framework. From a religious perspective, it is the weakness of human nature that ensures that God has to establish and anchor moral rules.
In truth, morality, like God, is a human creation. Even believers have to decide which of the values found in the Torah or the Bible or the Qur’an they accept and which they reject. What God provides is not the source of moral values but, if you like, the ethical concrete in which those values are set. Rooting morality in religion is a means of putting certain values or practices beyond question by insisting they are God-given. The success of religious morality derives from its ability to combine extreme flexibility – just look at the degree to which religious morals have changed over the centuries – with the insistence that certain beliefs and values and practices are sacred and absolute because they are divinely sanctioned. « Read the rest of this entry »
August 6, 2011 § 4 Comments
In the series of extracts I’m running from my still-being-written book on the history of moral thought, I have reached Chapter 8, which explores the struggle between the Rationalists and the Traditionalists in early Islam, and the significance of that struggle not just to Islam but to Christianity and to the development of modern secularism too.
The expansion of the Islamic empire from India to Iberia created new political tensions and theological dilemmas. It also created new kinds of administrative problems, the most pressing being the practical question of how to collect taxes, keep accounts and maintain records of state in an empire consisting of dozens of languages, forms of law and administrative styles. In the early eighth century Caliphs decided that Arabic should be the common language of empire, and the one in which public records and accounts were to be kept. So there began what came to be called the translation movement – a huge project sponsored by caliphs, local governors and rich philanthropists to translate local records into Arabic. Soon the translation movement spread its wings. The new empire had within its borders a treasure house of philosophical, scientific and religious texts, mainly Greek and Persian. Translators began first with those works that helped meet the pragmatic needs of the new rulers – works on subjects such as medicine, natural history, astronomy and astrology. Over time, intellectual horizons broadened further still. Translators moved from works of practical learning to more speculative philosophy. The Arab world discovered Plato and Aristotle.
The acquisition by Arabs of the philosophical jewels of the Greek and Persian worlds helped transform the intellectual culture of the new empire. In the mid-eighth century the Caliph al-Mansur built the new city of Baghdad to be his imperial capital. And here his great grandson, the Caliph Al-Ma’mun, created the ‘House of Wisdom’, a celebrated library and centre for scholarship that helped turn Baghdad into the world’s greatest intellectual centre of its time, the Athens of its age. « Read the rest of this entry »
August 4, 2011 Comments Off
June 1, 2011 § 1 Comment
This week’s Moral Maze on Radio 4 explores the relationship between science and morality, and in particular the idea that science provides the means to establish moral norms. It has an all-star cast of witnesses including Jerry Coyne, Joshua Greene, Ray Tallis and Giles Fraser.
I gave a talk last year to the ‘Talking Brains’ conference at the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany, on ‘Science, Morality and the Euthyphro Dilemma’ that took a skeptical look at some of the arguments of those whom I call ‘neuromoralists’. It picks up and develops many of the themes I touched on in my review of Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape and examines a few of the issues that hopefully we will debate on The Moral Maze. Here is a shortened, edited version of the talk.
SCIENCE, MORALITY AND THE EUTHYPHRO DILEMMA
Can science help define our moral framework? And if so how? The idea that science, and in particular neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, can throw light on moral choices has become conventional wisdom in recent years. How it can do so is, however, still a matter for fierce debate.
There is a wide spectrum of views about how science can illuminate our moral lives. At the soft end of this spectrum is the suggestion that our capacity for moral thought lies in our evolutionary history, the evidence for which derives primarily from primatology and evolutionary and developmental psychology. The degree to which our capacity for moral thought is the product of natural selection remains a matter of debate. In principle, however, the idea that our ability to think in terms of right and wrong may in part have evolutionary roots should not be controversial. « Read the rest of this entry »