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October 23, 2012

Interview: Russell Blackford on Atheism, Philosophy and Morality

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Russell Blackford Interview

We are pleased to have Russell Blackford, eminent Australian philosopher and critic here on Rational Hub. Russell is the author of several books on fiction and non-fiction including the fine book – Freedom of Religion and the Secular State – which we would recommend to all our readers.

1. Russell, do you think ‘gnu atheists’, in general, have been too harsh in criticizing religious dogma?
I think that what became known as the New Atheism was and is valuable, though I also think there was a sense in which it was business as usual. That is, there was always a body of work appearing that criticized religion. We shouldn’t sell short organizations such as the CFI and Prometheus Books, or their equivalents in other countries.

What changed, I think, was that it became apparent in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001 that there was a potentially large market for criticism of religion. Thus, we saw a stream of books from large trade publishers, as opposed to relatively small, specialized presses like Prometheus or the various academic publishers. And of course, some very popular writers, such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, took up the challenge.

I am always a bit skeptical about this idea of “moderate religion” – some of the so-called “moderate” religious groups don’t strike me as moderate at all, among them the Catholic Church.

The New (or jokingly, “Gnu”) Atheist writers don’t form a monolith – they have varied ideas and viewpoints. Overall, I doubt that they’re especially more critical of religion than writers from an earlier time, such as Bertrand Russell, or back to the likes of Diderot and Voltaire. However, there’s now a sense of urgency about criticizing religion, and especially its political influence. That was less the case in the 1980s and 1990s, when many academics and public intellectuals probably considered religion a spent force, at least in the West.

Have the “New Atheists” been too harsh? Well, one of the leading participants has been Daniel Dennett, but no one could fairly accuse him of being especially harsh. Even Richard Dawkins, who is often painted as strident and angry, actually expresses himself in a mild and nuanced way on most occasions.

There are doubtless some comments about religion by some of the New Atheists, some of the time, that I’d disagree with. Some points may overreach, as is inevitable in any discussion. I’d probably be softer than, say, Sam Harris on the more moderate or liberal kinds of religion, although I should add that I am always a bit skeptical about this idea of “moderate religion” – some of the so-called “moderate” religious groups don’t strike me as moderate at all, among them the Catholic Church.

All in all, my view of the New Atheism, to the extent that it can be seen as a movement or an alliance, is that it was, and is, totally needed and justified. The need and justification remain. That doesn’t mean I am committed to agreeing with, say, Dawkins or Harris or Dennett or Hitchens on every point. But then again, nor should I be. Their works should be taken as encouragements to discussion and reflection, not as a new body of dogma.

2. Does the Kalam Cosmological Argument hold any merit? Would any such ‘arguments’ suffice, in your view, to establish the existence of a deity?
I don’t think this particular argument has any merit. Its premises are very much open to challenge. Even if they were accepted as true, all the argument would demonstrate is that what we call the universe is not the totality of what exists and is part of some larger causal order.

If we treat the argument as a thought experiment with that outcome, we’ll still be no closer to saying that there is a deity – some kind of powerful, supernatural intelligence. Why not just say, if you do accept the argument’s premises, that the finite age of the universe is evidence that, despite its incomprehensible immensity, it is still only part of the totality of what exists? If you want to say that, fine. Plenty of physicists might even agree. You might then note the difficulties that face us in trying to understand that larger order, but even if all that is correct it is not an argument for the existence of a deity.

But could there have been a convincing argument for the existence of God? Well, possibly. If what we observed around us were very different, then we might think that the presence and activity of some kind of powerful disembodied intelligence made best sense of our experience.

What if we lived in a world in which we routinely encountered phenomena that were best understood as the actions of disembodied intelligences? What if the holy books agreed with each other and with scientific findings about factual matters such as the age of the earth? I can easily imagine living in a world in which the arguments to believe in a powerful disembodied intelligence that created nature as a whole were quite convincing. But we don’t live in that world.

3. Is there an inherent incompatibility between religion and science?
Not an inherent one, no. Back in, say, 1500 CE it might even have turned out, for all anyone knew, that science would confirm what is in some of the holy books.

For example, science might have discovered that our planet is 6,000 years old, that the rock strata and fossil order are consistent with a worldwide flood some thousands of years ago, that reproductive processes in animals are best explained on a basis that involves the activities of disembodied intelligences, that evil spirits provide the best explanation of disease, and so on.

Science and religion have very different methods for finding out the truth, but there seems to be no inherent reason why there could not be a world in which they converge on the same conclusions. Obviously, as it’s turned out, we don’t live in such a world.

What I think is best said here, at least in a reasonably concise answer, is that it’s a massive oversimplification, in fact gravely misleading, to describe religion and science as compatible.

It doesn’t follow that they are incompatible in a simple way. The sorts of incompatibility that exist require some teasing out. Udo Schuklenk and I have been doing that in some detail in the book we’ve been writing together, 50 Great Myths About Atheism – we’ll have quite a lot to say in favour of what sometimes gets called anti-accommodationism. Given the nature of the world we find ourselves in, it turns out that science has progressed in a way that really has undermined the intellectual authority of religion. And given everything we know about this process so far, I expect that it will continue.

4. Organizations like NCSE has gone to great lengths to presumably be more inclusive, when it comes to religious people. Do you think that sort of accommodationist stance is a healthy one to take?
I can see why, from a political viewpoint, organizations like the NCSE want to take an accommodationist position – the position that religion and science are fully and somewhat straightforwardly compatible. However, I think that stance is intellectually untenable. I also question how much it really is politically advantageous.

I’d prefer to see these organizations take a stance of neutrality on such controversial philosophical questions. For example, there is plenty to be said in favor of evolutionary theory without getting into the question of whether or not it is compatible with theological views, and if so which theological views.

5. Has science rendered philosophy, weak, to some extent? How relevant is philosophy today?
A big question! Part of the problem here is that there are many different conceptions of philosophy and science. As I understand them, I don’t think there’s any clear dividing line between the two. Both have access to all the same arguments and evidence.

Clearly enough, however, there are pedagogical and other practical reasons to make distinctions among the various academic disciplines, and what practicing scientists do is rather different from what practicing philosophers do. That reflects the different kinds of questions they are trying to answer, and it necessitates different emphases in methods and training.

If it comes to that, there is no clear dividing line between the sciences and the humanities. Or between a discipline like philosophy and one like law.

That said, what we intuitively think of as philosophical questions remain, and they can’t be answered within the professional practice of science the way science is currently organized into specializations and sub-specializations, and so on.

Furthermore questions such as “What is needed for a just society?” or “Do we have free will?” often involve careful work to try to get clarification of vague, murky concepts. Asking such a question, then trying to answer it in an intellectually respectable and rigorous way, largely involves trying to nail down what people are really talking about when they carry on about, say, justice or free will. It’s just not straightforward, and as Socrates evidently discovered in antiquity people can tie themselves in knots when they try to work out what they really mean with all the abstract language that (until they are challenged) they seem to use so confidently.

Ordinary language is full of ambiguity, metaphor, and approximation, and often the problems of what is really going are resistant to the methods of, say, lexicographers. So philosophers are trained to clarify concepts, tease apart their components, make careful distinctions, etc., with natural language. This kind of analysis is not necessarily useful for working scientists. I can imagine scientists getting frustrated with it, but there’s no avoiding it in philosophy.

Even if we tried to conduct a scientifically-rigorously study to get an idea of what conception of free will or justice most people have in their minds, there would be no escaping the need for a lot of conceptual analysis before trying to draw up the words used in something like a survey instrument, and then in interpreting the results.

If anything weakens philosophy, it is its inability to produce decisive outcomes. No one has yet established in an uncontroversial way what is really meant by “justice” or “free will,” or many, many other such terms, let alone whether we have free will or what is a just society. It often seems that the more we delve into these sorts of issues the more they complicate and ramify. Thus, we can develop all sorts of complex, elegant concepts, but the “true” definition of justice, say, still seems to elude us, and that fact itself calls for reflection.

Perhaps when we use this language we are often talking past each other, because our concepts are very imprecise and to a considerable degree not actually shared once we get beyond obvious cases. But the result that we see in philosophy journals can be enormously detailed efforts at clarification by academic philosophers which don’t seem to get us much closer to answering the original questions. Ironically, these attempts at clarification can be impenetrable to ordinary people.

By contrast, science makes impressive progress – clearly we understand vastly more about the natural world than we did 500 years ago, or even 50 years ago. So perhaps that is a reason to be impatient with philosophy and philosophers by comparison. Scientists can point to practical results. It’s no wonder that science is in a stronger position to attract funding from business and government.

Where does this get us? I don’t think the practice or the academic discipline of philosophy will go away, because the classic philosophical questions are too fascinating and too much a source of anxiety. If you tried to reassign those questions to a branch of science, you’d soon find the scientists who were assigned to answer them would get bogged down in the same conceptual problems and would start to reinvent the same techniques of conceptual analysis, etc.

So something like the current discipline of philosophy will continue, frustrations and all.

I don’t have a simple solution to philosophy’s discontents. It seems to be difficult making progress in philosophy partly because the “big questions” that arise in natural language so often turn out to be so full of conceptual puzzles and confusions. As a result, philosophers can get tied up in interminable, indecisive, very fine-grained and technical wrangling about what seems like mere semantics to others. Even if conceptual progress is made (and I think it often is), the result might not be accessible to a popular audience, or the sort of thing that ordinary people wanted to know in the first place.

Yet there’s no substitute for the process, and it should not be dismissed. By and large, philosophers, at least those in the English-language analytic tradition, are doing their best to achieve progress and clarity.

Fortunately, my own work tends not to be conducted at a highly-technical level, and I hope that it’s accessible to a fairly broad educated audience. All the same, even a relatively low amount of technical analysis can be a barrier to readers – I work hard to avoid putting people off, but it’s partly the nature of what is involved in philosophy, and in human thought and language.

6. I’m sure you’ve blogged somewhat extensively on this topic – especially in response to Jerry and Sam Harris I believe – but still, what’s your stance on free will?
I think the problem here, as I touched on in the previous question, is getting a handle on what ordinary people mean when they worry about whether or not they have free will.

Anyone who thinks that is something straightforward is really not being fair to the full range of problems that have emerged in the historical dialogue over the issue. So, although I am more a compatibilist than not, I’m not convinced that we all have the same conceptions of free will or that ordinary people have entirely coherent conceptions of it at all. Many people may have a mix of libertarian and compatibilist intuitions.

My response to Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris has not so much been a defense of compatibilism, though I guess it’s widely seen that way. It is basically to ask them to hang on a minute and be more patient with people who don’t think their, i.e. Jerry’s or Sam’s, conceptions of free will “just are” what the folk mean by the expression or related expressions, or necessarily what is really bugging people who, over the centuries, have felt the need to ask questions about whether they have free will or not.

If you want a simple answer from me, I don’t think we have libertarian free will, and I always struggle to see how the idea even makes sense. But do we often act “of our own free will” in ways that philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and David Hume would recognize? Yes, I think we often do.

There’s then, I suppose, a whole lot of political and other questions if I’m right on both of those points. What are the implications?

7. Having read your articles on moral realism and moral scepticism sometime back (and really loved reading them) – but still a lot of people, at least in my experience, still remain moral realists by appealing to consequence. Would not subscribing to moral realism, by any means, imply ‘anything goes’?
It’s nice to know that someone loved reading it – so thanks!

Unfortunately, yet again, this is going to get murky if I try to do justice to the complexity of the problems and their history. I’ll do my best to skate over all that and give you a relatively brief answer — though my answer might not be entirely satisfying.

Basically, my view is that moral norms and moral codes are best seen as standards that serve the desires of human beings living in societies. If we all (or even most of us) make certain kinds of efforts and accept certain kinds of constraints, there will tend to be a mutual benefit.

Obviously there’s a lot more to be said here, but that’s my broad-brush view of what moral norms and codes might actually be able to accomplish. I don’t think, for example, that they are going to be much use for obtaining spiritual immortality or pleasing divine beings, or anything of the kind, though of course some religious codes of conduct purport to do exactly that.

We should reject the false dichotomy between either there being the “true” moral norms and codes that are inescapably and absolutely binding in some sense or it being a case that “anything goes,” so cruelty is just as good as kindness, dishonesty just as good as honesty, treachery just as good as loyalty, etc. Neither of those is the actual situation. I guess I’ll need to return to this as we go, and say something about why.

8. On a related note, would moral scepticism be compatible with humanism? I must say that moral scepticism gets quite a bad rap, along with relativism.
If humanism is a this-worldly philosophy that concentrates on progressing the secular interests of human beings, rather than trying to please deities or conform to a supernatural principle of some kind, I don’t think there’s anything contrary to humanism in any plausible form of moral skepticism or moral relativism.

The big problem with moral relativism is that the usual form of it that people encounter, and often accept, is not at all plausible once you look into it even slightly. But there are some sophisticated versions of moral relativism that deal pretty well with the most obvious problems. We can’t write off all philosophers who argue for some sort of moral relativism just because many people seem to buy a crude version of it.

That said, it’s worth continuing to expose people to the real problems with the crude version. It won’t do to run around saying: “Female genital mutilation is fine in the societies that practice it, because that’s their moral code. We shouldn’t interfere.” Wrong. That’s not a coherent set of ideas.

A lot of students seem to enter college or university from high school with a set of ideas like that, which they acquired from somewhere. I think it’s worthwhile showing them how it doesn’t add up. They can worry later about whether some much more sophisticated variety of moral relativism might be possible – in the past, I’ve mentioned this to my students, in an effort to be open with them. But I think the urgent point at that stage of their philosophical careers is more to show them the problems with crude relativism than to introduce them to the interesting approaches of people like, say, Gilbert Harman or Jesse Prinz.

9. I have never been able to wrap my head around moral error theory in specific. How could one be a moral error theorist and condemn something as immoral or unethical?

The moral error theorist should concede that we often have sensible, meaningful discussions about whether someone decided well or badly and whether their act was a good one or a bad one.

But she will notice how even in cases that don’t seem at all clear-cut we don’t seem to be willing to accept disagreement with judgments about what we call the moral goodness or badness of acts.

One reason why you might not be able to get your head around it is that it’s not entirely clear what it means. Whatever it originally meant, it seems to have come to mean that all so-called first order moral statements – statements such as “Torturing babies is morally wrong” or “Giving to Oxfam is morally desirable”, and so on – are simply false. That sounds outrageous. Yet, it might be correct.

This is the point in the interview where many of your readers will, in fact, be outraged … and understandably so.

So perhaps it’s also the point where I need to say more, even at the risk of some technicality and long-windedness. You may have guessed already that a problem arises about what is really meant, or conveyed, by a sentence such as “Torturing babies is morally wrong.” It may turn out that the sentence conveys something that is not literally true, even though it might also play a useful role in, say, denouncing and opposing the torture of babies.

I’ll come at this indirectly. What if I said one of the following? “My car is a good car.” “The Amazon River is majestic.” Or, “The sunset over Cable Beach is beautiful.” Most people would agree that there is something about these sentences that prevents them from being just facts like “My car is a Honda Civic” or “Cable Beach is on the west coast of Australia.” The claim that Cable Beach is on the west coast of Australia seems like a plain fact that is, as it were, binding on us all. Someone who disagrees is simply, unequivocally, factually wrong, given the ordinary meaning of the sentence. And something similar applies to the claim about what make of car I own (even though ownership is a socially constructed fact).

But when I praise the Amazon River as “majestic” or the (typical) Cable Beach sunset as “beautiful,” I don’t seem to be making a claim that is just factually correct in the same way. Perhaps those words can be interpreted in a way that does make them apply factually. E.g. we might say that “majestic,” when applied to rivers, just means some complicated combination of physical properties. Or “beautiful” might just mean something like having the property of inducing a certain kind of feeling in most human beings. But that’s all obviously problematic – it’s not at all clear that I’m just stating a fact in that way when I use such words. In at least some cases, it seems as if it might be legitimate for me to say, “X is beautiful” without thinking that you are just wrong if you disagree. You might say, in response, “Well, I don’t think X is beautiful,” and that’s also legitimate. We agree to disagree, and we accept that neither of us is “just wrong” about something like that. Something similar might apply to whether we want to call a natural feature like a river “majestic.”

Our language is full of these sorts of terms where legitimate disagreement seems possible, and neither disagreeing party is necessarily just wrong. Try going through your day looking out for instances, and you may find a myriad of examples — “great”; “sexy”; “alluring”; “creepy”; “cool”; and on and on. They are about as common in everyday experience as the instances where there is a factually correct statement to be made, and anyone who rejects it is just mistaken.

My reference to ideas of “majesty” and “beauty” was to warm you up. But now I want to talk about the word “good.” What does this everyday word really mean?

Well, that’s a difficult question. But arguably when I say that my car is a “good” one I mean something like this – my car has a combination of properties that, taken together, make it effective or efficient for whatever it is that we desire from a car. Those properties will include certain levels of performance, certain levels of comfort (presumably for average human beings), certain levels of reliability, etc. Part of the trouble is that the levels concerned are rather vague – even I may not know what level of performance I really want from a car. But we will probably share some vague idea. Given that people want much the same things from a car, we can reach a great deal of agreement on whether a particular car is a “good” one or not. Furthermore, when we reach that level of agreement we won’t be doing so arbitrarily.

All the same, some people place more weight than others on such things as reliability, as opposed to performance or comfort, or other factors. And we tend to think that these different weightings, not to mention our differing standards for the levels we demand, are all legitimate. You might say that the idea of “whatever it is that we desire from a car” is something of a fiction, since we all desire slightly different things. In fact, if “effective or efficient for whatever it is that we desire of the sort of thing in question” were the precise meaning of “good” then we could not (or at least not often) say that any car is a good one, because there is no such thing as exactly what we desire. There is what I desire, the slightly different thing that you desire, the slightly different thing again that she desires, etc. These will overlap heavily, but they won’t line up exactly.

And yet, not-so-miraculously, we can have perfectly sensible discussions of the merits of cars!

That’s because, given the kinds of beings we are, with similar needs, desires, projects, etc., and given the uses we actually make of cars, we are tacitly applying similar approximate standards. We may ultimately agree to disagree about which is the better of two competitive current-model cars in the same price range, but often we’ll reach agreement in more clear-cut cases.

I want to suggest to you that something similar applies to other things whose merits we discuss. We can have sensible discussions of the merits of clothes, movies, books, houses, tennis players (considered simply as tennis players), and so on – and in each case the discussion won’t be simply futile or the standards used just arbitrary. We’ll be able to reach considerable agreement. And yet, we really might, to some extent or other, want different things from, say, a book, and that might mean that we ultimately disagree, quite legitimately, about whether The Lord of the Rings is a better novel than, say, Tom Jones or Midnight’s Children.

But what if say, “Roger Federer is a good man.” I don’t mean he’s a good tennis player (perhaps we can all agree on that easy case, at least). I’m really talking about his character. And character is something to do with people’s dispositions of certain kinds, such as kindness or cruelty, courage or cowardice, propensity to violence, or otherwise, willingness to compromise and get along, or otherwise, and on and on. If we have some difficulty applying exactly the same standards as each other to cars or books, I expect it may be even more difficult when we sum up the characters of human beings.

Even if we agree that kindness is better than cruelty, courage is better than cowardice, etc., none of us are completely kind or courageous, etc., and we all have mixed, complicated sets of dispositions. X might be very kind but rather cowardly, while Y has a cruel streak but is very courageous and absolutely loyal. Which of them is a “better person,” summed up overall?

If we followed the approach in my earlier answers, we’d conclude that there will be easy cases where every sincere person considers X, overall, to be of bad character, while Y is of good character – but there will also be cases where it might not be clear what we should say about someone’s character overall, or where it might not be clear who is the better person out of X and Y, judged overall. You might rank X higher, while I rank Y higher, and in the end it might be legitimate to disagree (despite having had a sensible discussion of the merits) because, really, there is no “what we desire from a person’s character” just “what I desire from a person’s character” and the slightly different “what you desire from a person’s character.”

Here’s where the moral error theorist chimes in. The moral error theorist is likely to claim that people are not prepared to accept legitimate disagreement when it comes to these judgments of people’s characters in the way that there is room for legitimate disagreement about the merits of cars. It seems that when we make judgments about the goodness or badness of people’s characters, i.e. moral judgments about people, we erroneously think that we are making purely factual statements like whether Cable Beach is on the west coast of Australia. We see someone who disagrees with us as just factually wrong. But this is an error – the other person is not just factually wrong when she disagrees with me about the goodness of someone’s character in a case that is not clear-cut, any more than if she disagrees with me about the goodness of a car in a case that is not clear-cut.

Well, that will be controversial. But let’s move beyond the goodness or badness of character to the moral rightness or wrongness of people’s decisions and the resulting acts.

The moral error theorist should concede that we often have sensible, meaningful discussions about whether someone decided well or badly and whether their act was a good one or a bad one. But she will notice how even in cases that don’t seem at all clear-cut we don’t seem to be willing to accept disagreement with judgments about what we call the moral goodness or badness (or wrongness) of acts. We seem to insist that the acts we judge to be morally wrong just are wrong – i.e. this is a matter of unequivocal factual correctness.

Thus, we look for an answer that is factually correct. We then insist on our view prevailing, and when we say that an act is morally wrong we don’t mean something like: “Having properties counter to those that are effective for what we (really, I) desire from human decisions and acts.” Rather we seem to mean something more like: “Having properties such that the act breaches an absolutely binding standard that transcends all desires and social institutions.” If that’s what morally wrong means, says the error theorist, then all statements of the form, “X-ing is morally wrong” are false, because there simply are no such absolutely binding, transcendent standards.

What I’ve just tried to explain has taken a long time, but it would probably take a book to explain it properly and make it really persuasive. Suffice to say, I think that the error theorist has a point here. We do have this tendency, when it comes to people’s characters and certainly their decisions (or at least particular types of decisions that we consider “morally significant”) to think that we are applying absolute, transcendent standards, rather than standards that we roughly agree on because most of us have similar desires about these things (e.g. a desire for human societies to survive, or for pain and suffering to be avoided). At least with some kinds of moral language, this idea of an absolutely binding and transcendent standard may well infect our language itself.

Thus, the error theorist will (however outrageous it sounds) count the following as, strictly speaking, a false statement: “Torturing babies is morally wrong.”

That isn’t because the error theorist thinks that torturing babies is, in the ordinary sense, a good thing.

But she will interpret “Torturing babies is morally wrong” as meaning something like “Torturing babies is forbidden by an inescapably binding and transcendent standard” or perhaps “Torturing babies is categorically forbidden in the nature of things.” Since the moral error theorist, rightly in my view, denies that there are such standards, or that anything is “categorically forbidden” in that mysterious way, she says that this statement comes out false. She will still be opposed to torturing babies, and she will probably think that it’s a bad thing to do in the ordinary sense of “bad.”

How far error theory is correct is going to depend on how far people tend to think that categorical forbiddenness and similar strange properties actually exist, and how far our language itself conveys such ideas. There does seem (to me) to be at least some tendency that way, so, once again, I think that moral error theorists have a point.

But how far is it a practical point? Clearly, we are going to go on making judgments about people’s characters, decisions, actions, etc. Clearly, we’ll continue to have sensible discussions of these things, and we’ll often reach agreement. In practice, many cases will be clear-cut. So the point might not be very practical. Even if you think that certain moral sentences are, strictly speaking, false, you might think they are near enough to being true not to quibble.

All the same, there might be more to it. If you accept moral error theory, you might be less insistent on others accepting at least some of your judgments. Again, you might consider that at least some moral language is best avoided if you think it encourages unnecessary and harmful dogmatism about certain judgments where you think disagreement is legitimate. You might also find that the most suspect language is not the language you are most inclined to use on an everyday basis in any event.

Again, it might be disconcerting if the theory pushes you to think that our moral codes are ultimately based on human desires, which vary to an extent, rather than on something that goes more deeply into the impersonal fabric of the universe – though then again, this might be a salutary reminder of the limits of what moral norms and codes can really do. Without wanting to write a whole book on the subject – at least right this minute – I’ll leave you to think whether moral error theory, if it is on the right track, has any practical importance or use.

10. The word ‘scientism‘ is thrown around quite a bit these days. What do you make of it?
Again, there’s a lot to say, and much of the disagreement relates to what is meant by science as well as by “scientism.” I’ve already said that I don’t see a clear dividing line between the sciences and the humanities. All the methods available to one are available to the other. Nonetheless, different questions tend to require different approaches and emphases, and this will necessitate different training.

For example, if I am doing a lot of historical research that involves translating ancient inscriptions there is really no substitute for training in the relevant ancient language or languages. At least the way the sciences and humanities are usually understood in English-speaking countries, learning and using languages is more a hallmark of scholarship in the humanities than of the practice of science. Conversely, employing instruments that extend the human senses, developing mathematical models, and conducting controlled experiments are more the hallmarks of science than of scholarship in the humanities.

However, scientists and humanities scholars both need to use logic, including hypothetico-deductive reasoning. They may both need to carry out various kinds of close observation, and so on. There may be circumstances where it would be helpful for a scientist to understand a foreign language. There will certainly be times when humanities scholars will use scientific instruments and other devices. None of this is a matter of drawing sharp lines.

There would be a problem with scientism if it meant the idea that the methods that are hallmarks of science are the best, or the only, approach to all problems and that the methods that are hallmarks of the humanities are never useful or the most useful – so it is useless learning foreign languages, or mastering a reasonably integrated technique of interpretation of certain kinds of documents such as might be used by a legal scholar making sense of a statute or a literary scholar making sense of, say, a seventeenth-century poem.

If that is how scientism is understood, then scientism is clearly wrongheaded and a bad thing (where “bad” has its everyday meaning). Of course it can – and often is – useful to learn a foreign language, for example.

But how many people really do embrace scientism in that sense? It’s very difficult to think of examples. Perhaps there are scientists who are sufficiently ignorant of the humanities to despise them or to think their methods are useless, or to think that they could do better with, say, making sense of a legal statute or deciphering an ancient inscription in a dead language. But any scientists like that would be rare. At least I hope so. I certainly don’t see them involved in serious debates about religion and philosophy.

All that said, the methods that are so much the hallmark of science have been very effective in opening up the universe to our inspection over the past four to five hundred years. In particular, science has enormously extended our knowledge of the natural world, enabling us to probe the depths of time, the distances of space, and the many scales of the micro-world that is invisible to our ordinary senses. I’m a great fan of science.

11. Having read your entry in “50 voices of disbelief” (which, again, I really enjoyed reading), it would be a bit redundant to ask about your transformation from an evangelical Christian to an atheist. But do you miss being religious?
Not at all. (That was an easy one!)

12. Are you working on anything at the moment?
Udo Schuklenk and I have just submitted the manuscript of ‘50 Great Myths About Atheism‘, which is under contract to Wiley-Blackwell. As I mentioned, this will come to grips with accommodationist ideas, among others. We’ll be discussing a wide range of misconceptions, half-truths, and misleading ideas that surround atheism, as well as spelling out something of our positive case for why atheism is the most reasonable response to the God question.

The other book I’m working on is Humanity Enhanced, which deals with issues, especially legal and political ones, surrounding genetic enhancement technologies, human cloning, etc. How should people of reason approach this? Humanity Enhanced is under contract to MIT Press.

I should also mention Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, which was published by Wiley-Backwell earlier this year, and which we haven’t really talked about. It’s my definitive attempt, so far, to defend the idea of a secular state – i.e. one in which the government is not guided by religious considerations, but only this-worldly ones – to explore the implications, and to explain why I think a secular state segues into a liberal state. Among other things, I explore conflicting concepts of freedom of religion, and I discuss the relationship between freedom of religion and freedom of speech. In brief, I reject ideas of any conflict between them, but there’s far more to say than that.

There are other projects, including another book that may or may not get off the ground, so I don’t want to say too much about it at the moment.

My life is incredibly busy right now, but hopefully this will all come to fruition and be worth it.

13. Philosophers who inspire you the most?
Many of them. Among the great philosophers of past times, Epicurus, David Hume, and John Stuart Mill would all be near the top of my list. Hume is perhaps the greatest of all. He saw very clearly and deeply, and philosophy has been trying to come to terms with his vision ever since. Much of modern philosophy is either footnotes to Hume or a campaign of resistance to his insights.

14. Any book recommendations for our readers?
Ah, where do I start? Actually, a lot of what I’ve been reading is rather specialized – it’s been research for my own books. In particular, I haven’t been getting a lot of time to read fiction, which I miss. Conversely, I’ve read enough works of Christian theology or apologetics of late to last me a lifetime (all for the purposes of 50 Great Myths About Atheism).

I’m currently reading the newest edition of Galen Strawson’s challenging book on free will, Freedom and Belief, and in fact I’ve been doing a lot of reading in that area. Although Strawson is regarded as an incompatibilist, while I’m probably thought of as a compatibilist, his detailed views don’t seem that far from mine so far. Both of us reject libertarian free will, and for much the same reasons. It’s then a question of what you do with the conceptions of free will, or simply freedom, that are left.

A lighter read just lately, but still an interesting one, was Sex and God: How Religion Distorts Sexuality‘, by Darrel Ray. This is a very accessible and provocative approach to the topic, and I found myself nodding along as I read it. I would be interested in other opinions of it. Ray did not really need to convince me of the main thesis of the book, that religion can be a barrier to any rational consideration of sex, either for individuals navigating their own sex lives or for understanding at a social level. He does, however, develop the case with many examples and arguments.

Thanks a lot Russell, for spending your time with us when you’ve been incredibly busy with your work! We’ll be looking forward to reading “50 Great Myths About Atheism”.






 
 

 
PF-paranoia

Paranoia, meet theism. Theism, this is paranoia… your biological father.

Just so there’s no doubt: Anthropomorphic theism is about as natural as tennis rackets, ice cream cones and bikinis. It is neither automatic nor inevitable. No religion has emerged twice anywhere on the planet, no single deit...
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I see no God

Now theists, listen carefully….

The Burden of Proof Like it or not, atheism is the default position. Theism is not automatic or inevitable. Theism is not natural. The gods all have to be learnt. They are new information superimposed over the default: a-theism...
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eugenie-scott

Interview: Dr. Eugenie Scott on Science, Religion and Creationism

Today on Rational Hub, we have Dr. Eugenie Scott, Executive Director at NCSE, who was kind enough to give us an interview despite her busy schedule. One of the most popular critics of Creationism and advocates teaching of evolu...
by Admininistrator
2

 




13 Comments


  1. David Evans

    I think there is a large gap remaining between "Torturing babies is wrong" and any of your other statements.

    Compare
    #1 Yesterday I saw a man decide to read (execrable book) rather than (good book).
    #2 Yesterday I saw a man torturing a baby (in real life).

    If someone says #2 to me my immediate reaction will be "What did you do about it?" and I will regard the answer "Nothing" as bizarre and in need of an explanation. None of that applies (or at least not with anything like the same urgency) to #1.


    • Ron Murphy

      I think you missed the point where Russell made it clear that this doing nothing is not what is implied by moral error theory. And I don't think Russell or any moral error theorist would disagree with your prioritisation. Like the issue of free-will it's about getting to the bottom of what we mean by 'wrong', in "Torturing babies is wrong"


  2. [...] anyone who might be interested, I’ve done a long (it comes to over 6000 words) interview at RationalHub. It was quite a searching interview – I was asked questions about the New Atheism, free will, [...]


  3. Strongly agree with this extract from his article. "Basically, my view is that moral norms and moral codes are best seen as standards that serve the desires of human beings living in societies. If we all (or even most of us) make certain kinds of efforts and accept certain kinds of constraints, there will tend to be a mutual benefit." Some religions perhaps originated as attempts to enforce such morality. Secular societies rely upon law. Religions get into trouble because the society in which they originate has changed. Secular societies are in trouble because of those who don't accept the constraints. Or maybe because words can't define morality.


  4. There is a lot of fuzzy thinking in the area of religious belief and morality, for instance, in the term “belief” itself as it applies to religion and ordinary situations. When a person claims they believe in a religion do they mean it literally, every single tenet, are they selective and believe some and not others, do they ‘believe” in those representing the religion, are they of the opinion that believing in a religion is itself a good thing? Are they simply used to thinking in terms and conditions they were born into? Are they more afraid of not believing because of the social consequences or what might happen to them after death? Does saying they believe simply make them feel better? Or is it like the belief I have that when I walk down the street it will not suddenly give way under me? In the past many were simply not free to say they did not literally believe what they were told to believe, and perhaps they didn’t give themselves permission to even think otherwise.

    But to say that the statement may not be valid, ” it is always morally wrong to torture babies” confuses the very basis of language, communication and morality. That statement is the heart of morality, of humanity, even as a value judgment. Some value judgments are unconditionally correct and that is one of them.

    I believe some atheists work for theists, they are so absurd, and having read Harris, Dawkins and others I can understand how some religionists say atheism is a religion. It is poor thinking to say there is no free will without defining free will: free will is not an absolute and can’t be put in absolute terms. And reductionism is
    simply poor philosophy and poor science; we are not just masses of genes in a cosmic battle to reproduce themselves and beat out other genes, for no other reason than to reproduce themselves! such ideas take meaning right out of the concept of “meaning”.


  5. Rajesh Dudeja

    I find it interesting that Morality is in same league of abstract terms like health, love, intelligence, wealth etc in which it is not just binary values of ones and zeroes, haves and have nots…. It the whole range on the spectrum barring the two extreme shades , and it's individual choice where he places himself on the spectrum.


  6. Wicked Monk
    Rajesh Dudeja

    I find it interesting that Morality is in same league of abstract terms like health, love, intelligence, wealth etc in which it is not just binary values of ones and zeroes, haves and have nots…. It the whole range on the spectrum barring the two extreme shades , and it’s individual choice where he places himself on the spectrum.


  7. Andrew Jurado

    Always love to see another admirer of Hume. Fascinating interview.


  8. Bill Podlaski

    Please get rid of this sliding box that lists the blogs on the left side of the web page. It is unnecessary and blocks part of the article, making it very difficult to read. Or at least move it to the right side.


  9. This is the first time that I’ve understood error-theory, and as a heuristic to remind us to be careful with our judging, I now incorporate it into [Google:'' covenant morality for humanity- the presumption of humanism.
    Mine is Epicurean [ long-range hedonism as opposed to that short-range eat, drink and be merry not thinking of tomorrow idiocy of Aristippus], utilitarianism, Aristotelian eudemonia, Kant’s categorical imperative. Mine is realist and objectivist [ people can all see the same consequences], and it is wide-reflective subjectivist like that of Hobbes and Hume, the subjectivism underpinning the objective morality, or should one differ , then this form of subjectivism would still bind people to morality. Indeed, the simple type of Russell and Ruse are fine, whereas the simple type of religious moralities are simply immoral, stemming from the misogynistic, mean-minded misanthropes who made most of it up from their perfervid imaginations!
    Thus, I find the subjectivist- objectivist dichotomy a false one!
    I came to this conclusion from reading John Beversluis’ ” C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion.,” a must read book against sophistry!


  10. Yes, to Hume! I intend to read books about his naturalism sometime.



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