How much does it matter whether God exists?

Source:aeon.com

Edited by:Sam Haselby

Emphasis Mine

Two rooms, in two different cities, but pretty much the same scene: one man stands before a few dozen supporters, many of them middle-aged white males, plus a smaller, precocious cohort in early adulthood. As the man speaks, they interrupt him with good, earnest, detailed questions, which he ably answers more or less to their satisfaction. These crowds crave the intricacies of arguments and the upshots of science. The only thing that seems beyond their ken is how their counterparts in the other room could be convinced of something so wrong.

One of those rooms was in New York City, high in an office building overlooking the ruins that then still remained of the World Trade Center; the man was Richard Dawkins, the Oxford zoologist and ‘New Atheist’ polemicist. The man in the other room was his arch-rival, the evangelical Christian philosopher and debater William Lane Craig, speaking in a classroom on the sprawling campus of his megachurch in Marietta, Georgia. If one were to attend both events without understanding English, it would be hard to know the difference.

Whether such a thing as God exists is one of those questions that we use to mark our identities, choose our friends, and divide our families. But there are also moments when the question starts to seem suspect, or only partly useful. Once, backstage before a sold-out debate at the University of Notre Dame between Craig and Sam Harris, Dawkins’s fellow New Atheist, I heard an elderly Catholic theologian approach Harris and spit out: ‘I agree with you more than I do with that guy!’

During the heyday of the New Atheist movement, a few years after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, I was in the wake of a teenage conversion to Catholicism. One might think that my converts’ zeal would pit me squarely against the New Atheist camp. But it didn’t. Really, neither side of the does-God-exist debates seemed to represent me, and the arguments in question had little to do with my embrace of my new-found faith. I had been drawn by the loosey-goosey proposition that love can conquer hate and death, expressed concretely in the lives of monks I had briefly lived among and members of the Catholic Worker Movement who shared their homes with the homeless and abandoned. I actually agreed with most of what the New Atheists wrote about science and free enquiry; what I disagreed most sorely with them about was their hawkish support for military invasions in Muslim-majority countries.

Still, I became fascinated with the question of God as I tried to wrap my head around it for myself. I travelled around the world to meet God debaters, and studied the historical thinkers from whom their arguments derive. I found that I wasn’t alone in doubting the pertinence of the question.

The thinkers who crafted the classic proofs for the existence of God – from Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas, for instance – were writing to audiences for whom the existence of divine beings was uncontroversial. The purposes of these proofs had more to do with contentions about what we mean by God, and how far into such matters human reason can really take us.

Consider, for instance, Anselm of Canterbury, an 11th-century monk who devised his proof in a fit of early morning ecstasy. His claim, which has been debated strenuously from its first publication until now, was that the very concept of God contained in it the proof of God’s existence – which, to Anselm, was a testament to God’s omnipresence and love. For centuries, his fiercest critics objected not to Anselm’s God, but to his reasoning. Centuries later, the Jewish apostate Baruch Spinoza employed a very similar argument in 17th-century Holland: he took the reasoning but mostly put aside the God.

Today, Spinoza stands as a progenitor of the modern, scientific worldview. The atheist philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein considers him ‘the renegade Jew who gave us modernity’. Yet at the centre of his system is a proof for God, one very much akin to that of the Christian monk Anselm. Where Anselm saw the Christian God, Spinoza saw the totality of the universe. He insisted that this was indeed God, that he was not an atheist. In his devotion to reason, Spinoza became famous for his piety; the German Romantic poet Novalis would later call him the ‘God-intoxicated man’.

Spinoza and Anselm both passionately believed in God, and adopted a similar way of thinking; the difference was in the kind of God they had in mind.

In the 20th century, the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch would take up their basic argument again. She saw in it neither Anselm’s God the Father nor Spinoza’s God of Nature, but the Good – the underpinning of morality and beauty in a post-religious world. When we compare her to Anselm and Spinoza, the question of God-or-no-God seems far less interesting than the argument they shared and the ways in which they tweaked its meaning. I wonder what Anselm and Murdoch would say to each other if they were to somehow meet.

What are we really talking about when we debate the existence of God? I think it can become a shortcut, a way of side-stepping more necessary and more difficult questions. Denouncing others as atheists, or as believers in a false God, can become an excuse to treat them as less than human, as undeserving of real consideration. When terrorists attack in the name of a certain God, it can seem easier to blame their religion than to consider their stated grievances about foreign military bases in their countries and foreigners backing their corrupt leaders. When religious communities reject scientific theories for bad reasons, it can seem easier to blame the fact that they believe in God, rather than to notice that other believers might accept the same theories for good reasons. Good ideas and bad ideas, good actions and bad actions – they’re all on either side of the God divide.

Pope Francis’s provocations in recent years have been palpable reminders of this. When Francis released his recent encyclical on ecology, many non-religious environmentalists received it more warmly than some of my fellow Catholics. Francis himself addressed the document not merely to Catholics, but to ‘all people’, and he has welcomed secular activists to the Vatican to discuss it. (The journalist Naomi Klein was so enthusiastic upon returning, she told me, that she had to remind herself ‘not to drink too much Kool-Aid’.) Meanwhile, the conservative Catholic blogger Maureen Mullarkey dismissed it as an ‘extravagant rant’. Catholic friends of mine found it depressing, while I read it by a lake with tears of joy. The fact that we share a belief in the God that Francis calls upon was, for better or worse, beside the point.

I believe in God, but I often find more common cause with those who say they don’t than those who say they do. I’ve come to care less whether anyone says they believe in God or not, and to care more about what they mean by that, and what they do about it.

 

See:https://aeon.co/opinions/how-much-does-it-matter-whether-god-exists?utm_source=Aeon+Newsletter&utm_campaign=3784398b57-Saturday_newsletter_26_March_20163_24_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_411a82e59d-3784398b57-68915721

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3 Lessons Noam Chomsky Taught Us on Debating Intolerant People from His Exchange with Sam Harris

Source: Alternet

Author: Andrew Aghapour

Emphasis Mine

The day before Mayweather fought Pacquiao, New Atheist Sam Harris released an email sparring match he’d had with famed linguist and leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky. In his bestselling book The End of Faith,Harris had accused Chomsky of drawing a “moral equivalence” between 9/11 and the 1998 U.S. missile attack on the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, which the Clinton administration had allegedly believed to be a chemical weapons factory.

The ensuing debate, which occurred over a four-day email exchange, is the most uneven public intellectual bout in recent memory. Chomsky repeatedly called out Harris’s rhetorical evasions and sloppy thinking, at one point describing one of Harris’s arguments as “so ludicrous as to be embarrassing.”

For his part, Harris was persistent and calm, but he seemed to fundamentally misunderstand the scope of Chomsky’s critique. Harris repeatedly asked Chomsky to be more polite, and offered to let him revise his comments before publishing the exchange. Chomsky refused the offer.

Here at The Cubit we read a lot of bad arguments, and you might be surprised to learn that Chomsky’s refusal to just be polite came as a welcome surprise. Here are three take-home lessons from the Harris vs. Chomsky Fight of the Century.

1. Call Out Bullshit Thought Experiments.

For Sam Harris, “not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development.” Yes, he admits, the U.S. has committed atrocities at a larger scale than many of our enemies, but we have higher moral standing because these were mistakes. Harris likens the U.S. to a “well-intentioned giant,” whose aims are good even if it occasionally blunders.

Underlining the good intentions of the U.S. even during attacks like the one on al-Shifa, Harris offered the following thought experiment:

Imagine that al-Qaeda is filled, not with God-intoxicated sociopaths intent upon creating a global caliphate, but genuine humanitarians. Based on their research, they believe that a deadly batch of vaccine has made it into the U.S. pharmaceutical supply. They have communicated their concerns to the FDA but were rebuffed. Acting rashly, with the intention of saving millions of lives, they unleash a computer virus, targeted to impede the release of this deadly vaccine. As it turns out, they are right about the vaccine but wrong about the consequences of their meddling—and they wind up destroying half the pharmaceuticals in the U.S.

What would I say? I would say that this was a very unfortunate event—but these are people we want on our team. I would find the FDA highly culpable for not having effectively communicated with them. These people are our friends, and we were all very unlucky.

The scenario you describe here is, I’m afraid, so ludicrous as to be embarrassing.  It hasn’t even the remotest relation to Clinton’s decision to bomb al-Shifa – not because they had suddenly discovered anything remotely like what you fantasize here, or for that matter any credible evidence at all, and by sheer coincidence, immediately after the Embassy bombings for which it was retaliation, as widely acknowledged.  That is truly scandalous.

And of course they knew that there would be major casualties.  They are not imbeciles, but rather adopt a stance that is arguably even more immoral than purposeful killing, which at least recognizes the human status of the victims, not just killing ants while walking down the street, who cares?

In fact, as you would know if you deigned to read before launching accusations, they were informed at once by Kenneth Roth of HRW [Human Rights Watch] about the impending humanitarian catastrophe, already underway.  And of course they had far more information available than HRW did.

Your own moral stance is revealed even further by your complete lack of concern about the apparently huge casualties and the refusal even to investigate them…

I’ve seen apologetics for atrocities before, but rarely at this level.

The Take-Away: If your opponent creates a thought-experiment that bends reality to fit their assumptions, pummel them with the facts.

2. “Civility” is a Dubious Rhetoric When it Comes to State Power

In The End of Faith, Sam Harris accuses Chomsky and other leftists of “moral blindness” towards the important differences between “the kind of force civilized democracies project in the world, warts and all, and the internecine violence [perpetuated by Muslim governments].” Harris argues that there is a qualitative moral difference between the U.S. and the Muslim world, which leftists like Chomsky cannot see.

Chomsky critiques Harris on two fronts. First, he deconstructs the accusation of “moral equivalence,” a term that “has been regularly used… to try to undercut critical analysis of the state one defends.” Of course there are moral differences between a terrorist attack against defenseless civilians and a U.S. missile strike that was believed to target a chemical weapons manufacturer. The problem with the accusation of “moral equivalence” is that it creates a relativist strawman, distracting us from more substantial ethical questions about U.S. actions.

Second, Chomsky dismantles Harris’s claim that good intentions alone can separate the U.S. from its moral enemies. “Professing benign intentions is the norm for those who carry out atrocities and crimes,” Chomsky points out, and so the claim the U.S. means less harm than it enacts is an empty one.

Throughout their exchange, Harris fails to recognize or address these substantial critiques. Instead, he accuses Chomsky of “running into the weeds” and focusing too narrowly on these points, calls him cantankerous and prickly, and refuses to move forward until Chomsky has sufficiently outlined—to Harris’s liking—the moral hierarchies of various violent intentions.

Harris asks Chomsky to be civil and return to a question that had already been answered, rather than “litigating all points (both real and imagined) in the most plodding and accusatory way.”

Chomsky’s response:

I agree with you completely that we cannot have a rational discussion of these matters, and that it is too tedious to pretend otherwise.  And I agree that I am litigating all points (all real, as far as we have so far determined) in a “plodding and accusatory way.” That is, of course, a necessity in responding to quite serious published accusations that are all demonstrably false, and as I have reviewed, false in a most interesting way: namely, you issue lectures condemning others for ignoring “basic questions” that they have discussed for years, in my case decades, whereas you have refused to address them and apparently do not even allow yourself to understand them.  That’s impressive.

Chomsky refuses to return to the fundamentals of Harris’s argument—the dubious arguments of moral equivalence and hierarchical intentions—because, as he had already explained, they were not just flawed, but also conceptually imbricated with defenses of American power. In the guise of politeness, Harris was asking Chomsky to play a language game whose rules enshrined Western values.

This reminds me a bit of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent argument that pleas for nonviolence in Baltimore are ultimately demands to back down and comply. “When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out,” Coates states, “it exposes itself as a ruse.” Similarly, for Chomsky to politely return to the philosophical premise of Harris’s choosing would be to ignore the larger context that makes his arguments flawed in the first place.

The Take-Away:Calls for “civil discourse” ought to be criticized and ignored if such civility would exclude facts and perspectives necessary for questioning dominant powers.

3. Drop the Mic on Your Way Out

From his first email to Chomsky, Harris seems eager to create a correspondence that he can publish on his website. Chomsky, on the other hand, is clearly more interested in the argument itself. When Harris continues to push the correspondence toward publication, Chomsky just drops the mic:

The idea of publishing personal correspondence is pretty weird, a strange form of exhibitionism – whatever the content.  Personally, I can’t imagine doing it.  However, if you want to do it, I won’t object.

Andrew Aghapour is a PhD Student at UNC Chapel Hill and co-producer of The Cubit.

 

See: http://www.alternet.org/belief/3-lessons-noam-chomsky-taught-us-debating-intolerant-people-his-exchange-sam-harris?akid=13163.123424.FWR7gz&rd=1&src=newsletter1037163&t=11

American Atheists must define themselves, not be defined by the religious

From:Washington Post Social Reader

N.B.: This is why Separation of Church and State is more important than ever!

By: Susan Jacoby

“I am sorry to tell you that this will be my last regular “Spirited Atheist” column, and I want to thank all of you who have followed my essays, including many who have taken the trouble to write me lengthy personal letters on my author Web site. Although I will continue to write occasionally on issues of unusual importance, a weekly column diverts too much time from the research for my next book, to be titled, “Conversions: A Secular History.”

In the new book, I will be examining the full range of historical and personal factors influencing ostensibly religious conversions, from that old favorite, the threat of execution, to marrying a third wife who happens to be a Catholic rather than a Protestant. For the former, see under: Judaism, Christianity and Islam; for the latter, under: Gingrich, Newt.

Looking back on my five years as a contributor to “On Faith,” I see a great paradox in the progress of American secularism: The numbers and visibility of atheists and secularists in the United States have increased but their political and social influence has not.

The large audience for the writings of atheists, most notably Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, has led many American pundits, preachers and politicians to exaggerate the influence of secular thought in the culture as a whole. I only wish they were right. For the warriors of the Christian right, in particular, this exaggeration serves the purpose of presenting themselves as victims in a nation where they in fact wield a power that they do not enjoy anywhere else in the developed world.

For a true measure of the limited influence exerted by atheism on popular culture, one need only turn to the closing bestseller lists for 2011. Leading the “nonfiction” New York Times paperback bestseller list (having been on the list for 56 weeks) is “Heaven Is for Real,” written by the minister-father of a 4-year-old boy who supposedly went to heaven during an emergency appendectomy and saw Jesus (“he had the brightest blue eyes”) and his baby sister, who was actually never born into this world because his mother suffered a miscarriage. This book is also No. 4 on the bestseller list of picture books for small children.

Guess what does not appear on any year-end Times bestseller list? Dawkins’s “The Magic of Reality,” an enchanting work which explains the origins of life to children in a non-didactic way that places religious myth in the context of the long human struggle to understand how we came to be, is nowhere to be found.

The point is that there is a much larger American audience for childish (in this instance, literally so) supernatural fantasies, which should no more be classified as nonfiction than Grimm’s fairy tales, than there is for any book that attempts to present the world as it is to the next generation. That 15 to 20 percent of Americans are no longer affiliated with any church does not replace the default position occupied in American political and cultural life by religion in general and Christianity in particular.

Even more important, the most potent religious influence on American politics is exercised by those on the far religious right, who — while they represent only a minority of all believers — are backed by huge amounts of money and organizational muscle. I have written many times in this column about the organizational and financial shortcomings that make it difficult for the secular movement, and indeed for liberal religious organizations committed to upholding secular government, to translate their values into real social and political influence.

I have also observed that secularists, unlike the religious right, do not always have the same political values. There is a deep split, as demonstrated every week in the comments about my columns, between American secularists descended from the humanism of Thomas Paine and those descended from the social Darwinists of the 19th century and the Ayn Randian “you’re on your own” anti-government ideologues of the 20th century. The problem for the secular right is that politicians who share its anti-government views are also committed to far-right religion. But the split between the humanists and the neo-social Darwinists is a serious problem for the secular movement as a whole, because the two groups find it difficult, if not impossible, to support the same candidates.

But there is another, much more important difficulty in the secular struggle to alter default assumptions about religion. Since the 1980s, the far right, especially the religious right, has been masterful at taking control of public language in a way that always places secularism and secular liberalism on the defensive.

First, the anti-abortion crusaders seized the brilliant label “pro-life” to characterize anyone who supported legal abortion as “anti-life.” The women’s movement adopted “pro-choice” as an alternative but was never entirely successful at marketing the label, as evinced by the current efforts of those fighting abortion restrictions to characterize themselves as “the real pro-lifers.” Once you start trying to appropriate the meaning of your opponents’ already twisted labels, you’re already halfway to losing whatever battle you’re fighting.

Second, the right has made a pejorative out of both intellectualism and liberalism, often equating both with godless secularism.

Now the same people are trying to take control of the term “religious liberty” and redefine it to mean the freedom of religious groups to accept government money but spend it only on providing services that have their particular faith imprimatur..

At an October hearing, titled “Religious Liberty in the United States,” largely ignored by the mainstream media, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), chair of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, asserted that religious freedom is under attack in America as it has never been in the past.

What Franks actually means by “religious freedom” is the liberty of religion to spend government money as it pleases. He is right, however, that this was never an issue on a national level in the past, because for most of the nation’s existence, the federal government never made the grievous error of giving money for secular purposes to faith-based organizations.

A parade of right-wing evangelical Protestants and representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops testified at the hearings against all attempts by the Obama administration to attach government regulations to taxpayer money. In this view, the administration is waging “war on Christianity” by, for example, mandating that providers with U.S. government contracts offer a “full range of reproductive services” to sex-trafficking victims in the United States and around the world. The church wants to help pregnant girls forced into prostitution by forcing them to have their abusers’ babies.

Bishop William C. Lori, head of the newly formed Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty formed by the bishops’ conference, attacked provisions of the new domestic health care law that impose any government mandates on religious health providers.

Note, again, the use of the term “religious liberty” to mean liberty for religious institutions to impose their values with taxpayer money. In practical terms, what Bishop Lori means is that when a rape victim walks into a government-funded Catholic emergency clinic, the clinic can not only refuse to offer the morning-after pill to protect her against pregnancy but can even fail to tell her about the existence of such a pill or to refer her to a nonsectarian institution that does provide such services.

The belief that religious institutions have the right to feed at the government trough while rejecting any government rules is the glue of the lobbying alliance between the Catholic bishops and right-wing evangelical Protestant leaders — an odd coupling that has never before existed in American history.

The only person at the hearing to point out that this redefinition of religious liberty is actually a demand for “special government blessings for those in favored faiths, and conversely, the treatment of members of other faiths as second-class citizens” was Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Nothing could be further from religious liberty as originally conceived by both the secularists and the people of liberal religion (mainly Baptists, liberal Congregationalists on the road to Unitarianism, and Quakers) who wrote the founding documents for this nation. All of these religious believers would have been horrified at the idea of accepting government money to underwrite their beliefs. That is why they joined with freethinkers like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to pass the the 1786 Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. The first state law to officially draw a line between government and religious institutions was written when religious conservatives in Virginia attempted to tax citizens for Christian teaching in public schools. This act would become the template for the federal Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

What religious liberty has traditionally meant in the United States is the right of all to believe and proselytize as they wish without government interference or favoritism. It also means the right of minority religions and of those who do not believe in any religion to be free from harassment by a state-favored religious majority.

Language distortion bolsters every aspect of religion as the default position. Twenty years ago, I could be reasonably sure, if I opened a fundraising appeal mentioning religious liberty on the envelope, that the notice came from a group like Americans United for Separation of Church and State or the ACLU. Now such appeals come from the likes of Focus on the Family and the Catholic hierarchy. They have no shame, and they want religious liberty only for themselves.

If secularists are to succeed in making any inroads on the default position of religion, they must reclaim the original definition of religious liberty, as exemplified by those who passed Virginia’s 1786 law.

There is another related, equally important task for the secular movement today. We must reclaim the language of passion and emotion from the religious right, which loves to portray atheists as bloodless, “professorial” (the word always applied to Obama) devotees of abstract scientific principles that have nothing to do with real human lives. This misguided but, again, ideologically useful portrait of atheists appeared frequently in the patronizing eulogies for Christopher Hitchens offered by religious believers who had fallen under the spell of his voice and his prose. Ross Douthaut, writing in the Times, argued that “many Christian readers felt that in Hichens’s case there had somehow been a terrible mix-up, and that a writer who loved the King James Bible…surely belonged with them, rather than with the bloodless prophets of a world lit only by Science.”

This is the sort of mindless obeisance to received opinion propagated by the missionaries for religion as the default position. Confronted by an atheist who does not fit their stereotype, their conclusion is not that the stereotype is awry but that the atheist, deep down, must not really be a true atheist. Because everyone knows that atheists are bloodless elitists (never honest Christian folk) who substitute science with a capital “S” for God with a capital “G.”

One reason why believers couldn’t quite dismiss Hitchens was that he did write and speak with the language of passion and emotion, as Robert Green Ingersoll, “the Great Agnostic” did in the 19th century and Thomas Paine in the 18th. I believe that the most crucial task for secularists today is to lay claim to the heritage that unites passion and reason.

I will close this column on the same note that I ended my book “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism,” in which I quoted Lear’s soliloquy when, after raging on the heath, he stumbles onto a place of shelter:

Poor naked wretches, wereso’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you

From seasons such as these? Take physic, pomp;

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,

That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,

And show the heavens more just.

[Make sure to set this so it appears as poetry.]

Yes, let us talk about showing the heavens more just. This is the essence of humanist secularism and humanist atheism and it must be offered not as a defensive response to the religiously correct but as a robust creed worthy of the world’s first secular government. It is also time to revive the evocative and honorable word “freethinker,” with its insistence that Americans think for themselves instead of relying on default opinion. The combination of “free” and “thought” embodies every ideal that secularists hold out to a nation founded not on dreams of justice in heaven but on the best human hopes for a more just earth.”

Emphasis Mine

see:https://apps.facebook.com/wpsocialreader/me/channels/read/content/dkR5A?utm_source=redirect&utm_medium=headline&utm_campaign=networknews&denyRedirect=http%3A%2F%2Fwpsocialreader.washingtonpost.com%2Ffbwapolabs%2Fme%2Fredirect%2Fwww.washingtonpost.com%2Fblogs%2Fspirited-atheist%2Fpost%2Famerican-atheists-must-define-themselves-not-be-defined-by-the-religious%2F2011%2F12%2F27%2FgIQAovELMP_blog.html%3Ffb_ref%3DNetworkNews%26socialreader_check%3D0%26denied%3D1

The Science of Morality

The issue is not whether we can achieve morality without religion, but rather could we achieve it with religion: the answers are found in science, not in foundation myths or supernaturalism.

In this post, Sam Harris examines utilizing science to establish a viable, global, civilization.

(See: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/morality10/morality.harris.html)

“[SAM HARRIS:] What I intended to say today has been pushed around a little bit by what has already been said and by a couple of sidebar conversations. That is as it should be, no doubt. But if my remarks are less linear than you would hope, blame that — and the jet lag.

I think we should differentiate three projects that seem to me to be easily conflated, but which are distinct and independently worthy endeavors. The first project is to understand what people do in the name of “morality.” We can look at the world, witnessing all of the diverse behaviors, rules, cultural artifacts, and morally salient emotions like empathy and disgust, and we can study how these things play out in human communities, both in our time and throughout history. We can examine all these phenomena in as nonjudgmental a way as possible and seek to understand them. We can understand them in evolutionary terms, and we can understand them in psychological and neurobiological terms, as they arise in the present. And we can call the resulting data and the entire effort a “science of morality”. This would be a purely descriptive science of the sort that I hear Jonathan Haidt advocating.

For most scientists, this project seems to exhaust all that legitimate points of contact between science and morality — that is, between science and judgments of good and evil and right and wrong. But I think there are two other projects that we could concern ourselves with, which are arguably more important.

The second project would be to actually get clearer about what we mean, and should mean, by the term “morality,” Understanding how it relates to human well-being altogether, and to actually use this new discipline to think more intelligently about how to maximize human well-being. Of course, philosophers may think that this begs some of the important questions, and I’ll get back to that. But I think this is a distinct project, and it’s not purely descriptive. It’s a normative project. The question is, how can we think about moral truth in the context of science?

The third project is a project of persuasion: How can we persuade all of the people who are committed to silly and harmful things in the name of “morality” to change their commitments, to have different goals in life, and to lead better lives? I think that this third project is actually the most important project facing humanity at this point in time. It subsumes everything else we could care about — from arresting climate change, to stopping nuclear proliferation, to curing cancer, to saving the whales. Any effort that requires that we collectively get our priorities straight and marshal massive commitments of time and resources would fall within the scope of this project.Obviously the project of moral To build a viable global civilization we must begin on the same economic, political, and environmental goals. persuasion is very difficult — but it strikes me as especially difficult if you can’t figure out in what sense anyone could ever be right and wrong about questions of morality or about questions of human values. Understanding right and wrong in universal terms is Project Two, and that’s what I’m focused on.

There are impediments to thinking about Project Two: the main one being that most right-thinking, well-educated, and well-intentioned people — certainly most scientists and public intellectuals, and I would guess, most journalists — have been convinced that something in the last 200 years of intellectual progress has made it impossible to actually speak about “moral truth.” Not because human experience is so difficult to study or the brain too complex, but because there is thought to be no intellectual basis from which to say that anyone is ever right or wrong about questions of good and evil.

My aim is to undermine this assumption, which is now the received opinion in science and philosophy. I think it is based on several fallacies and double standards and, frankly, on some bad philosophy. The first thing I should point out is that, apart from being untrue, this view has consequences.

In 1947, when the United Nations was attempting to formulate a universal declaration of human rights, the American Anthropological Association stepped forward and said, it can’t be done. This would be to merely foist one provincial notion of human rights on the rest of humanity. Any notion of human rights is the product of culture, and declaring a universal conception of human rights is an intellectually illegitimate thing to do. This was the best our social sciences could do with the crematory of Auschwitz still smoking.

But, of course, it has long been obvious that we need to converge, as a global civilization, in our beliefs about how we should treat one another. For this, we need some universal conception of right and wrong. So in addition to just not being true, I think skepticism about moral truth actually has consequences that we really should worry about.

Definitions matter. And in science we are always in the business of framing conversations and making definitions. There is nothing about this process that condemns us to epistemological relativism or that nullifies truth claims. We define “physics” as, loosely speaking, our best effort to understand the behavior of matter and energy in the universe. The discipline is defined with respect to the goal of understanding how matter behaves.

Of course, anyone is free to define “physics” in some other way. A Creationist physicist could come into the room and say, “Well, that’s not my definition of physics. My physics is designed to match the Book of Genesis.” But we are free to respond to such a person by saying, “You know, you really don’t belong at this conference. That’s not ‘physics’ as we are interested in it. You’re using the word differently. You’re not playing our language game.” Such a gesture of exclusion is both legitimate and necessary. The fact that the discourse of physics is not sufficient to silence such a person, the fact that he cannot be brought into our conversation about physics, does not undermine physics as a domain of objective truth.

And yet, on the subject of morality, we seem to think that the possibility of differing opinions, the fact that someone can come forward and say that his morality has nothing to do with human flourishing — but depends upon following shariah law, for instance — the fact that such position can be articulated proves, in some sense, that there’s no such thing as moral truth. Morality, therefore, must be a human invention. The fact that it is possible to articulate a different position is considered a problem for the entire field. But this is a fallacy.

We have an intuitive physics, but much of our intuitive physics is wrong with respect to the goal of understanding how matter and energy behave in this universe. I am saying that we also have an intuitive morality, and much of our intuitive morality may be wrong with respect to the goal of maximizing human flourishing — and with reference to the facts that govern the well-being of conscious creatures, generally.

So I will argue, briefly, that the only sphere of legitimate moral concern is the well-being of conscious creatures. I’ll say a few words in defense of this assertion, but I think the idea that it has to be defended is the product of several fallacies and double standards that we’re not noticing. I don’t know that I will have time to expose all of them, but I’ll mention a few.

Thus far, I’ve introduced two things: the concept of consciousness and the concept of well-being. I am claiming that consciousness is the only context in which we can talk about morality and human values. Why is consciousness not an arbitrary starting point? Well, what’s the alternative? Just imagine someone coming forward claiming to have some other source of value that has nothing to do with the actual or potential experience of conscious beings. Whatever this is, it must be something that cannot affect the experience of anything in the universe, in this life or in any other.

If you put this imagined source of value in a box, I think what you would have in that box would be — by definition — the least interesting thing in the universe. It would be — again, by definition — something that cannot be cared about. Any other source of value will have some relationship to the experience of conscious beings. So I don’t think consciousness is an arbitrary starting point. When we’re talking about right and wrong, and good and evil, and about outcomes that matter, we are necessarily talking about actual or potential changes in conscious experience.

I would further add to that the concept of “well-being” captures everything we can care about in the moral sphere. The challenge is to have a definition of well-being that is truly open-ended and can absorb everything we care about. This is why I tend not to call myself a “consequentialist” or a “utilitarian,” because traditionally, these positions have bounded the notion of consequences in such a way as to make them seem very brittle and exclusive of other concerns — producing a kind of body count calculus that only someone with Asperger’s could adopt.

Consider the Trolley Problem: If there just is, in fact, a difference between pushing a person onto the tracks and flipping a switch — perhaps in terms of the emotional consequences of performing these actions — well, then this difference has to be taken into account. Or consider Peter Singer’s Shallow Pond problem: We all know that it would take a very different kind of person to walk past a child drowning in a shallow pond, out of concern for getting one’s suit wet, than it takes to ignore an appeal from UNICEF. It says much more about you if you can walk past that pond. If we were all this sort of person, there would be terrible ramifications as far as the eye can see. It seems to me, therefore, that the challenge is to get clear about what the actual consequences of an action are, about what changes in human experience are possible, and about which changes matter.

In thinking about a universal framework for morality, I now think in terms of what I call a “moral landscape.” Perhaps there is a place in hell for anyone who would repurpose a cliché in this way, but the phrase, “the moral landscape” actually captures what I’m after: I’m envisioning a space of peaks and valleys, where the peaks correspond to the heights of flourishing possible for any conscious system, and the valleys correspond to the deepest depths of misery.

To speak specifically of human beings for the moment: any change that can affect a change in human consciousness would lead to a translation across the moral landscape. So changes to our genome, and changes to our economic systems — and changes occurring on any level in between that can affect human well-being for good or for ill — would translate into movements within this hypothetical space of possible human experience.

A few interesting things drop out of this model: Clearly, it is possible, or even likely, that there are many peaks on the moral landscape. To speak specifically of human communities: perhaps there is a way to maximize human flourishing in which we follow Peter Singer as far as we can go, and somehow train ourselves to be truly dispassionate to friends and family, without weighting our children’s welfare more than the welfare of other children, and perhaps there’s another peak where we remain biased toward our own children, within certain limits, while correcting for this bias by creating a social system which is, in fact, fair. Perhaps there are a thousand different ways to tune the variable of selfishness versus altruism, to land us on a peak on the moral landscape.

However, there will be many more ways to not be on a peak. And it is clearly possible to be wrong about how to move from our present position to the nearest available peak. This follows directly from the observation that whatever conscious experiences are possible for us are a product of the way the universe is. Our conscious experience arises out of the laws of nature, the states of our brain, and our entanglement with the world. Therefore, there are right and wrong answers to the question of how to maximize human flourishing in any moment.

This becomes incredibly easy to see when we imagine there being only two people on earth: we can call them Adam and Eve. Ask yourself, are there right and wrong answers to the question of how Adam and Eve might maximize their well-being? Clearly there are. Wrong answer number one: they can smash each other in the face with a large rock. This will not be the best strategy to maximize their well-being.

Of course, there are zero sum games they could play. And yes, they could be psychopaths who might utterly fail to collaborate. But, clearly, the best responses to their circumstance will not be zero-sum. The prospects of their flourishing and finding deeper and more durable sources of satisfaction will only be exposed by some form of cooperation. And all the worries that people normally bring to these discussions — like deontological principles or a Rawlsian concern about fairness — can be considered in the context of our asking how Adam and Eve can navigate the space of possible experiences so as to find a genuine peak of human flourishing, regardless of whether it is the only peak. Once again, multiple, equivalent but incompatible peaks still allow for a realistic space in which there are right and wrong answers to moral questions.

One thing we must not get confused about is the difference between answers in practice and answers in principle. Needless to say, fully understanding the possible range of experiences available to Adam and Eve represents a fantastically complicated problem. And it gets more complicated when we add 6.7 billion to the experiment. But I would argue that it’s not a different problem; it just gets more complicated.

By analogy, consider economics: Is economics a science yet? Apparently not, judging from the last few years. Maybe economics will never get better than it is now. Perhaps we’ll be surprised every decade or so by something terrible, and we’ll be forced to concede that we’re blinded by the complexity of our situation. But to say that it is difficult or impossible to answer certain problems in practice does not even slightly suggest that there are no right and wrong answers to these problems in principle.

The complexity of economics would never tempt us to say that there are no right and wrong ways to design economic systems, or to respond to financial crises. Nobody will ever say that it’s a form of bigotry to criticize another country’s response to a banking failure. Just imagine how terrifying it would be if the smartest people around all more or less agreed that we had to be nonjudgmental about everyone’s view of economics and about every possible response to a global economic crisis.

And yet that is exactly where we stand as an intellectual community on the most important questions in human life. I don’t think you have enjoyed the life of the mind until you have witnessed a philosopher or scientist talking about the “contextual legitimacy” of the burka, or of female genetic excision, or any of these other barbaric practices that we know cause needless human misery. We have convinced ourselves that somehow science is by definition a value-free space, and that we can’t make value judgments about beliefs and practices that needlessly derail our attempts to build happy and sane societies.

The truth is, science is not value-free. Good science is the product of our valuing evidence, logical consistency, parsimony, and other intellectual virtues. And if you don’t value those things, you can’t participate in the scientific conversation. I’m saying we need not worry about the people who don’t value human flourishing, or who say they don’t. We need not listen to people who come to the table saying, “You know, we want to the cut heads off adulterers at half-time at our soccer games because we have a book dictated by the Creator of the universe which says we should.” In response, we are free to say, “Well, you appear to be confused about everything. Your “physics” isn’t physics, and your “morality” isn’t morality.” These are equivalent moves, intellectually speaking. They are borne of the same entanglement with real facts about the way the universe is. In terms of morality, our conversation can proceed with reference to facts about the changing experiences of conscious creatures. It seems to me to be just as legitimate, scientifically, to define “morality” in this way as it is to define “physics” in terms of the behavior of matter and energy. But most people engaged in of the scientific study of morality don’t seem to realize this.”

Morality vs. Religion

The issue is not whether we  can have morality without religion, but rather,  can we have morality with religion!

To deal rigorously with that question, one must begin by defining ‘religion’ and ‘morality’ : many religionists sidestep that requirement by defining religion in terms of  morality, morality in terms of religion, and base religion on supernatural authority. A humanist approach is to define both morality and religion in human terms, discarding supernaturalism and all of the baggage it carries.  Morality: a set of principles by which we treat others and ourselves; religion: submission to a supernatural power, which may involve ritual observations and practices.  (For those who follow the Christian religion, morality is usually intertwined with repression of human sexuality.)

From HuffPost: ” Best known as an outspoken atheist and the author of The End of Faith, writer-turned-neuroscientist Sam Harris has echoed the assertion, normally associated with religious thinkers, that humans need a universal system of morality. At the 2010 TED conference held last month in Long Beach, California, Harris claimed that there are definite right and wrong answers to moral questions. “Values are a certain kind of fact,” he argued.

However, Harris quickly rejected the notion that religion would offer the answers to moral questions. Instead, he argued for a scientific approach to achieving a universal morality, one that conceptualizes human well-being as something that can be quantified and maximized in any number of equally successful ways — much like health and nutrition.

He criticized the tendency to regard moral questions as matters of opinion rather than as questions that have scientifically verifiable right and wrong answers. “How have we convinced ourselves that in the moral sphere there is no such thing as moral expertise, or moral talent, or moral genius, even?” he asked. “How have we convinced ourselves that every opinion has to count?”

“Just admitting that there are right and wrong answers to the question of how humans flourish will change the way we talk about morality,” he said.”

see: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/22/ted-2010-sam-harris-claim_n_509052.html?view=print

emphasis mine

see also:https://chasdarwin.wordpress.com/2010/02/14/atheists-just-as-ethical-as-churchgoers/

and: https://chasdarwin.wordpress.com/2010/01/27/secular-ethics-is-not-an-oxymoron/