Sunday, February 20, 2011

Rabbi Moshe Averick and the argument from morality

Rabbi Moshe Averick (via the Manawatu Christian Apologetics Society) trots out the tired old argument from morality. I think the Gnu Atheists are so often accused of having nothing really new to offer simply because theists themselves have nothing new. Averick is definitely eloquent, but he shows us that eloquence can be employed just as easily to obscure fallacious reasoning as it can be to make correct reasoning come to life.

In the first chapter of Nonsense of a High Order, Averick seizes on Christopher Hitchens' argument that human beings' "relationship with ground worms and other creatures ... make[s] short work of racism." Averick concludes that this statement is empty and destroys rather than creates value: With a bit of snark, Averick says that "Hitchens – blinded by the brilliance of his third grade epiphany – has failed to realize the ultimate emptiness of such a statement."

Averick asserts that atheism contains the "implicit notion that human beings merely represent another evolutionary branch of the animal kingdom" (emphasis added). He goes on to say that "if the atheist/Darwinian view is accurate, we are all brothers in the sense that we are equally related to ground worms. ... if we accept the premise that our existence on the earth is only possible via the magic of Darwinian evolution ... our response would be to join hands and triumphantly break into a chorus of We Shall Overcome." He makes this argument explicit:
Through the eyes of the atheist, being related to ground worms does not make all of mankind brothers in the sense that we are all equally valuable. It makes us brothers in the sense that we are equally void of allsignificance [sic]. A ground worm is insignificant. There nothing ennobling or inspiring in one’s being related or equated to a ground worm. Thus, the species Homo sapiens is also insignificant.
His clear implication is that atheists construct our conception of human value directly and exclusively from our physical, evolutionary nature.

Averick tries to support that interpretation by quoting several scientists asserting human beings' physicality and contingency. Paleontologist Stephen J. Gould says, "We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs," Rice University physicist Dr. Peter Walker says that human beings "are carbon based bags of mostly water on a speck of iron-silicate dust revolving around a boring dwarf star in a minor galaxy in an underpopulated local group of galaxies in an unfashionable suburb of a supercluster." According to astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington, "We are bits of stellar matter that got cold by accident, bits of a star gone wrong." Averick believes that Carl Sagan "leaves little to the imagination" when Sagan says, "The very scale of the universe…speaks to us of the inconsequentiality of human events in the cosmic context." Averick draws the conclusion: "In the world of the atheist, all life on earth drowns in an ocean of insignificance in relation to the countless billions of galaxies in our universe."

Averick clearly seems hostile and contemptuous of not just atheist moral philosophy, but of science itself. All the statements Averick quotes are substantively true in their entirety. Evolution really is, as Gould mentions, contingent and unpredictable. We really are "carbon based bags of mostly water." The atoms (of everything but hydrogen and helium) in our body really were forged in stars. All of human history really does inhabit a fraction of space-time so small that accurately calculating just the number of zeroes would be an exercise in tedium. We are indeed inconsequential in a cosmic sense. Averick as well refers to the "the magic of Darwinian evolution," restating it as "the atheist/Darwinist view." But evolution is not magic; it's science.

Earlier in the chapter, Averick mentions that the title of his book, Nonsense of a High Order, comes from Sir Fred Hoyle's assertion that the idea that "the operating program of a living cell could be arrived at by chance in a primordial organic soup here on the Earth is evidently nonsense of a high order." But of course Hoyle has been proven wrong; we have not solved the problem, but modern research on the origins of life has shown that a natural origin of life is not only not "nonsense", but quite plausible.

Moreover, Averick fails to quote anyone other than Hitchens as saying that any moral value follows from the scientific truths presented. And Hitchens is not making a broad, positive point; he's making a narrow, negative point: The truth of evolution and the relatedness of terrestrial life undermines one particularly "stupid" belief: the belief that one race of human beings is somehow ineluctably superior to another. With the key characterization of evolution as "magic", we must conclude that Averick believes that the cited scientific truths lead logically to the conclusion that human life is morally "insignificant". Since human beings are not insignificant, these statements must therefore not be true.

Averick must therefore believe not only that "For the believer... the intrinsic value of a human being derives from his relationship to God," he must also hold that the intrinsic value of a human being can derive only from his relationship to God. Furthermore, this relationship must be a physical relationship: If we really are related to ground worms, if our particular characteristics really are a contingency of evolution, if we really are carbon-based sacks of water, if we really do occupy only a nearly infinitesimal corner of the cosmos, if these scientific findings are really true, then we cannot have any intrinsic value from our relationship to God.

But atheists simply do not predicate value on cosmic consequentiality; we do not predicate value on any physical or even mystical "specialness" of human beings. The connection with racism is clear: If human beings in general are not special at all, it's nonsensical to believe that one race is more special than any other. But that we do not predicate value on some sort of physical relationship with what mathematician Paul Erdős called the "supreme fascist" does not mean that we must necessarily abandon the notion of value. The key phrase in the Declaration of Independence is not "endowed by our Creator", but "we hold these truths to be self-evident." We can abandon the notion of the Creator and still believe it is self-evident that all human beings are equal in an important political and moral sense. We can believe that it is self-evident that human beings really do have inalienable rights, among them "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" regardless of their origin: We can agree it is self-evident that we have them without agreeing on how we came to have them.

1 comment:

  1. It is ironic that he chose to quote Sagan in there. If I am recalling the context of the quote correctly Sagan was suggesting that all the fuss we cause about different religions that obsess over human sigificance, all the wars and hatred these notions have inpired have their true significance exposed when we take the cosmic view.

    Sagan vividly exposing the nonsense of theistic thought in under 10 minutes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p_naQhynOg0

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