Pandaemonium

A BOOK IN PROGRESS [PART 17]: SCIENCE, NIHILISM & MORALITY

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. Take the argument that wellbeing can be defined through data gained through fMRI scans, physiological observation, pharmacological measures, etc. Such studies may be able tell us which brain states, neurotransmitters or hormones calibrate with particular real-world conditions. But whether those states, neurotransmitters or hormones are seen as indicators of wellbeing depends on whether we consider those real-life conditions as expressions of wellbeing. If wellbeing is defined simply by the existence of certain neural states, or by the presence of particular hormones or neurotransmitters, or because of certain evolutionary dispositions, then the notion of wellbeing is arbitrary. If such a definition is not to be arbitrary, then it can only be because the neural state, or the hormonal or neurotransmitter level, or the evolutionary disposition, correlates with a notion of wellbeing or of the good, which has been arrived at independently.

The  philosopher Alex Rosenberg accepts that there is a problem here, that scientific accounts of morality face ‘a coincidence problem just like the one troubling the theists’. But unlike theists, scientists have a solution: nihilism. By insisting that there is nothing that makes one moral claim true and another false, nihilism ‘avoids the challenge that Plato set for anyone who wants to reveal morality’s rightness’. Rather it ‘recognizes that Plato’s challenge can’t be met’.

Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality is a handbook to ‘enjoying life without illusions’, as the subtitle puts it. To abandon our illusions, Rosenberg insists, requires us to embrace not simply a scientific view of the world but a ‘scientistic’ one too. ‘Scientism’ is the insistence that ‘the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything’. In fact, for Rosenberg, even the whole of science is not necessary to grasp reality. Just physics will do. We ‘have to embrace physics as the whole truth about reality’. Reality, for Rosenberg, is ‘fermions and bosons and everything that can be made up of them, and nothing that can’t be made up of them’.

In Rosenberg’s scientistic world, the self is an illusion, as is free will, and any notion of meaning and purpose. It is not simply the universe that possesses no meaning or purpose; it is an illusion to imagine that individual human beings do so either. No human being ever forms plans or has any purposes of his or her own.  None of our thoughts is really ‘about’ anything at all. Indeed we do not have thoughts at all. And ‘if your brain can’t think about anything, it can’t have thoughts about the future’. So ‘notions of purpose, plans or design’ are ‘illusory’. There is nothing to be learnt from history which is ‘full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing’. Literature, the arts, the humanities, even the social sciences, give us no genuine knowledge about the world, because all presuppose the existence of selves with meaningful thoughts who act and plan purposively. All are ‘endlessly entertaining elaborations of an illusion’. As for morality, there is no difference between right and wrong, good and bad. The only reason to be moral is that ‘it makes you feel better than being immoral’. One might imagine that there is a touch of tongue-and-cheek about all this, perhaps even a parody. But no, Rosenberg is being deadly earnest. And nowhere more so than in his discussion of morality.

‘Many questions we want the “right” answers to just don’t have any’, Rosenberg insists, drawing upon JL Mackie’s moral nihilism.  These include ‘questions about the morality of stem-cell research or abortion or affirmative action or gay marriage or our obligations to future generations.’ When it comes to such issues, ‘all anyone can really find are the answers that they like’.  Moral disputes, Rosenberg argues, ‘can be ended in lots of ways: by voting, by decree, by fatigue of the disputants, by the force of example that changes social mores.  But they can never really be resolved by finding the correct answers.  There are none.’

If the ‘bad news’ is that there is no such thing as moral right and wrong, the good news is that it does not really matter. All people share ‘the same core moral norms, theists and nihilists included’. This ‘core’ includes principles like ‘Don’t cause gratuitous pain to a newborn baby’, ‘Protect your children’, ‘Other things being equal, people should be treated the same way’, ‘If you earn something, you have a right to it’, and so on.  A belief in the truth of this ‘core morality’ has been hardwired into us by natural selection. Core moral values have been selected for because they helped maximize fitness.

While shared core moral beliefs take the edge off nihilism, there are nevertheless, Rosenberg acknowledges, ‘lots of moral values and ethical norms that enlightened people reject but which Mother Nature has strongly selected for’.   Racism and xenophobia ‘are optimally adapted to maximize the representation of your genes in the next generation, instead of some stranger’s genes’.  Similarly, ‘the almost universal patriarchal norms of female subordination’.  All are ‘the result of Darwinian processes’.  ‘In general’, too,  ‘there will be selection for individuals who are bigger and stronger and therefore impose their will on those who are weaker – especially when it comes to maximizing the representation of their genes in the next generation.’ But, thankfully ‘Darwinian processes… in the main selected for niceness’, favouring reciprocity and altruism.  So, nihilism need not be nasty, leading to a Hobbesian war of all against all. What we have, instead, is a ‘nice nihilism’.

For Mackie, cultural variations in moral norms provided evidence for the truth of nihilism. Rosenberg, on the other hand, finds that evidence in the lack of cultural variation in the most important values, in the existence of a core, shared morality. Leaving aside the question of whether nihilism itself is a plausible account of moral life, it is possible that both Mackie and Rosenberg are right about moral norms. It is not implausible that humans posses a small number of evolved, shared moral beliefs, surrounded by an ocean of culturally variable norms. Whether or not this is so remains, however, an open question. The debate about the degree to which moral norms are shared across cultures and the extent to which they vary remains unresolved. A century ago the argument for cultural variation held sway. More recently the idea of an evolved set of cultural and moral universals found favour. There are signs now of a swing back in the pendulum; recent research has plausibly, if controversially, claimed that even traits that had seemed unquestionably evolved and universal – such as facial expressions, for instance, or language – may be far more culturally varied than once thought. Given this debate, Rosenberg is not giving a scientific account of how natural selection may have shaped our moral norms, but is rather telling a story, a story of the kind he is so dismissive about in histories, biographies, the humanities and literature, but one that is often less persuasive because he seems so cavalier with both fact and observation.

Consider, for instance, the claim that among the core moral precepts, the ones that all humans share, and always have shared, is the belief that ‘Other things being equal, people should be treated the same way’. As everything from aristocracy to slavery reveals, most human societies throughout virtually the whole of human history have ignored that moral precept and built their institutions upon almost the opposite moral claim. Or take another supposed core moral belief, the edict that ‘If you earn something, you have a right to it’. Again, the historical data suggests something very different. For virtually all of human history (and indeed in virtually all societies today) the material goods to which people have a right has been defined more by their social position and role, and by power and privilege, than by what they have ‘earned’.

Equally problematic is Rosenberg’s argument about ‘enlightened’ values. Nature, he argues, ‘has strongly selected for’ traits such as racism, sexism, homophobia because they supposedly improve fitness. But not to worry. ‘Once we see that sexism is the result of natural selection’s search for solutions to the universal design problem of leaving the most viable and fertile offspring’, Rosenberg believes, ‘some of us are on the way to rejecting its norms. We can now explain away sexism as a natural prejudice that enlightened people can see right through.’

This raises argument a whole host of problems. For a start, what does it mean for an attitude or value to be ‘enlightened’? There are, for Rosenberg, no right or wrong moral beliefs, nor any that are either true or false. This might suggest that an ‘enlightened’ value is a value that Rosenberg likes or, in his own words, makes him ‘feel better’. But clearly he objects to racism, sexism and homophobia for deeper reasons. I am not sure, for example, that he would describe someone who likes the ‘wrong’ flavour of ice cream as ‘unenlightened’.  This takes us back to the problem raised by emotivism: that simply viewing moral claims as personal preferences robs of them of force and renders them meaningless. I might think it odd if someone hated ice cream, or preferred Barry Manilow to the Black Keys. But I recognize that these are simply personal preferences. In using terms such as ‘ought’ and ‘good’ in moral discourse I am appealing to a standard that has greater authority, or at least that I want to have greater authority. For someone to think that it is right to discriminate against African Americans, or to deny women equal rights in the workplace, or to murder people, or to torture suspects, is to make a claim qualitatively different from insisting that Barry Manilow has a great voice. To talk of ‘enlightened’ values is a way of pretending that moral claims are simply personal preferences, while accepting that in reality they are more than that. For all Rosenberg’s claims that no moral beliefs are right or wrong, he clearly perceives that some are more right than others because they are ‘enlightened’, while others are more wrong, being unenlightened attitudes.

In any case, how is it possible to ‘see through’ unenlightened values once we accept them as products of natural selection? By this I do not mean that humans are prisoners of our evolved traits. Clearly we are not. What I am questioning rather is the way that Rosenberg seems highly selective about which parts of the core morality we are able to override. His whole project of ‘nice nihilism’ depends not just on nature having selected for traits that promote cooperation, but also on nature having convinced us that moral claims are objective and true. Just because the traits that comprise the core morality have been selected for does not, however, make them true or right, any more than any moral traits are true or right. Nature, however, has ‘seduced us into thinking it’s right’ to make ‘core morality work better’ since ‘Our believing in its truth increases our individual genetic fitness’.

Nature is not, it seems, the greatest of seducers. We can, Rosenberg insists, see through her charms when she tries to seduce us into being nasty racists or sexists. But if we can reject nasty traits why cannot we reject nice ones too? And if we can where does that leave the project of ‘nice nihilism’? Nihilism, Rosenberg assures us, does not mean ‘anything goes’ because we are protected by safety blanket of an evolved core morality. But if we can opt out of the core morality at will, then that shreds the safety blanket. Hence Rosenberg is forced to insist that we opt out of only the nasty traits. But why?

Perhaps recognizing such problems, Rosenberg introduces a second argument. Unenlightened attitudes from racism to honour killing, from female genital mutilation to the Hindu caste system, are the result, Rosenberg argues, not of nasty values but of the core morality colliding with ‘false factual beliefs’.  Once the factual beliefs are corrected, the core morality will no longer seem to support the unenlightened attitudes. ‘Most Nazis’, Rosenberg explains, ‘may have really shared a common moral code with us. Where most Nazis “went wrong” was in the idiotic beliefs about race and a lot of other things they combined with core morality, resulting in a catastrophe for their victims and for Germany’. Leave aside the historical crassness in this understanding of Nazism and of Nazi beliefs that once again makes one wish that Rosenberg had not thrown away all his history books in a fit of scientistic pique. The trouble is, the argument that racism is the result of ‘false factual beliefs’ directly contradicts the earlier claim that racism is ‘a natural prejudice’, the means by which nature attempts to ‘maximize the representation of your genes in the next generation, instead of some stranger’s genes’.

Contradiction aside, the thought now arises: Why should it be that only those moral claims of which Rosenberg disapproves that are factually incorrect? In any case, Rosenberg’s claim is that moral beliefs are neither right nor wrong, neither true nor false. So the facts of the case should be immaterial. Whether a particular factual belief is warranted or not has, in Rosenberg’s eyes, no bearing on moral beliefs. It may be that you think a moral belief should fit the facts.  But that belief can, in Rosenberg’s world, be no more right or wrong than the insistence that moral beliefs can blithely ignore the facts.

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The images are, from top down, Naum Gabo’s Constructed Head No.2; cover of Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality; Kazimir Malevich’s White on White; Joan Miro’s Head of Man; and James Rosati’s Head.

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3 comments

  1. Simon

    Excellent piece. Reading Rosenberg’s volume was, for me, an incredibly irritating experience. His lack of nuance and flippant attitude towards history were two particularly egregious aspects of the work. Thanks for following up here.

  2. William

    Rosenberg’s approach seems to resemble, as it were, the crippled epistemology of the conspiracy theorist. Wherein, irrespective of one’s being ignorant of one’s own ignorance, all events and phenomena that do not concur with one’s own a priori formulations and beliefs are hastily left aside in a most unbecomingly silly fashion. The knowledge of generalities, in itself neither good nor bad, oft obscures the existence of particularities; the real, historically contingent, lovingly transient, sensuous existence of said particularities.

    Marx, although not himself immune to such problems, probably said it best;

    ‘The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism – that of Feuerbach included – is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism – which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such.
    Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, really distinct from the thought objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity. Hence, in The Essence of Christianity, he regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is conceived and fixed only in its dirty-judaical manifestation. Hence he does not grasp the significance of “revolutionary”, of “practical-critical”, activity.’
    It’s seems to a certain extent that the 19th century has in some sense returned. And, as dispiriting a thought as that might be, it’s even more dispiriting to note that much of what is said in this regards, as of now at least, is said in such a fashion as to belie belief in the efficacy of education. The history of ideas has never seemed so popular, and yet, somewhat ironically, it has also never seemed to have so little an effect as that which it has today. Harris, of course, is instructively symptomatic in this arcane regards. So much so in fact, that although he might to some extent function as a gateway drug, in leading people to believe that the secular discussion of moral issues is in any way a novel or new approach, is alarmingly, well, insane, if not, more accurately, exceptionally inane.

    Nevertheless, and probably much more to the point, Rosenberg, in a fashion similar to John Gray, would appear to problematise the existence of science by way of problematising the existence of reason, or rather of critters supposedly capable of the exercise thereof. A pointedly contradictory position given his scientistic ontology (was willed action in pursuit of knowledge not ontologically prior to and therefore necessary for the future construction of his own opinions? History, in any case, or rather, to my mind at least, is the true field, alongside anthropology, of human ethology). Although, maybe in truth, one could construe his book as being, in part at least, somewhat supportive of his own position, although only insofar that it tends to jeopardise the reader’s belief in the workings of rationality. It works, therefore, in a fashion not too dissimilar to the way in which, say, Damien Hirst, works as a one man refutation of the labour theory of value. Which is indeed, near needless to say, no good thing at all.

    Many thanks for the interesting, and often illuminating, writings and articles.

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