Just chemistry

In a recent review (“Where are the honest atheists?“), my always-interesting friend Damon Linker pans a forthcoming book by A.C. Grayling, one of the “new atheists,” for accomplishing little that hasn’t been said before (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchins, etc.,) and for exhibiting the same shortcomings.  He wants them to confront the “terrible” consequences of what they are saying:

If atheism is true, it is far from being good news. Learning that we’re alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free — all of this (and much more) is utterly tragic.

The new atheists differ from the old atheists primarily by their passionate devotion to modern science (or, we might say, whatever the consensus view is at the moment).  Central to this devotion is the cosmological theory commonly referred to as the Big Bang, in which a “singularity” of infinite density and temperature erupted about 14 billion years ago and formed the universe we experience today.  There is a lot of observational evidence for the cosmological theory.  The new atheists have their articles of faith, too.  The first is that this original event (we are not allowed to ask what came before the origin) was devoid of any purpose, intent, or meaning.  The second article of faith is that this pointless universe is, in its entirety, nonetheless governed by a vast body of immutable physical laws (which come from…..ummmm, hold that thought).

A small part of the pointless universe, though not a part with any particular import, is made up of the masses of chemicals known as human beings.  Indeed, since the universe as a whole is pointless and meaningless, it is ridiculous to even talk about any group of chemicals as having importance.  Placing relative values on things, which is what importance means, makes no sense in a universe void, from the beginning, of subjective values.  We can talk about how different chemicals function within the universe, such as emitting energy or holding objects together or sustaining life.  But with respect to matter, nothing matters more than anything else.  Indeed, life itself is no more valuable than the absence of life.  A fundamental law of science is that we cannot create something from nothing, which means that we cannot extract values from a valueless and unvalued universe. How could one chemical or combination of chemicals have more moral standing than another?  Indeed, to even talk about the moral standing of different chemicals or combination of chemicals is nonsense.

Imagine our own world hundreds of millions of years ago when life was just “emerging” (due to some highly fortunate but completely random occurrence of the right chemical and environmental conditions) and when there was nothing more on the planet than simple one-celled creatures.  What sort of ethics governed these creatures?  If it seems like a silly question, it is because it is a silly question—but no more silly that the question of what sort of moral code governs any of the long line of descendents from those one-celled organisms, including human beings today.   Since there was, in our natural history, no design, no intent, no meaning, no value, no good, and no evil, we are really no different, in ethical terms, than our one-celled ancestors, are we not?  How could it be otherwise?  Remember, something cannot come from nothing.  Sure, we can evolve into new chemical combinations and follow new evolutionary pathways, but none of those have any meaning or value or import.  They are just different.  In short we are just a cosmic accident, an accumulation of chaotic, pointless events and, therefore, no more important than an amorphous cloud of gas encircling some lifeless planet.

The new atheists and their fellow travelers have written many books (I’ve got a shelf full of them) about the evolution of a “moral sense.” It is quite logical to think that certain attitudes and ideas promote reproductive fitness and the thriving of the species.  But all this really gets us a world where some chemical conglomerates have evolved methods of sustaining themselves that, as far as we know are not seen elsewhere in the universe.  These arguments have nothing to tell us about whether the species is worth maintaining.  Should we cease to exist, kill ourselves in a nuclear Armageddon, for instance, there is no more loss, in any moral sense, to the universe than when a cloud of gas dissipates and its components combine with other elements to become something else.  How can there be loss when there is no value to begin with?  Scripture teaches that we are made from the dust and will one day return to the dust.  Believers share this view with the new atheists.  The difference is that for the atheists, that whole process—including the part we refer to as our lives—can be of no consequence whatsoever.  That is the unavoidable conclusion flowing from their articles of faith.

This is the truth Linker wants the new atheists to admit honestly.  But they won’t, in general.  They will acknowledge that their cosmology allows for no universal moral laws (this can be very convenient for purposes of self-justification, incidentally), but they still want it both ways.  They want to mock moral intuitions and metaphysical powers but at the same time reserve the right to extract, from the stratosphere apparently, moral ideas as they suit their fancy.  Linker refers to this as “superficial happy talk.”  They want to hang on to the rich moral sense that humans have and pretend it could have been a produced, by accident, from a universe that began without any purpose or reason for being.  And they think we believers are too dumb to notice this sleight of hand.

Grayling argues, for instance, that when we exorcise religion from our lives, we have something much more wonderful to put in its place: humanism.  This claim is completely mindless—and by “mindless” I mean in the deepest, truest sense of the word.  He says that humanistic ethics are founded in the “facts of human experience” and are subject to, first of all, the constraint that “one’s choices must not be aimed at harming others.”  Well, why ever not?  Since I am a product of the same pointless history of random chemical reactions that created the amorphous cloud of gas mentioned above, I have no more worth than that cloud.  Kicking a fellow human being is just as morally arbitrary as kicking a rock down the road.  We (the rock and I) are both the chemical products of a pointless sequence of random events.  Why should anyone worry about kicking a rock or, for that matter, releasing chemicals into the atmosphere. Why should humanity have any special moral relevance over any other random dump of chemicals in the universe?

The typical response is that we are different because we have reason.  Ahhhh, there you have it.  We can think.  So why does this make me special?  I also have very powerful and diverse enzymes in my gut that do all sorts of wonderful things.  I can also regulate my internal body temperature without even thinking about it.  Indeed, I have a wide variety of advanced brain functions.  The thing they all share in common is that they are all governed by chemistry.  As the new atheists like to tell us, “there is no ghost in the machine.”  No soul. No mind.  No spirit.  Just a very cool chemical machine.  Reason allows me to reflect on all these things, but is it any more than just chemistry, any more worthy of respect than my complicated digestive system?  I can find no rationale within the atheists’ cosmology to conclude that it is.  Chemistry has no moral value, even if it is nifty.

Now, unlike the rock, I may care about being kicked, but the pain I feel and the emotions resulting from being kicked are just chemical reactions in my physical brain.  Those chemical reactions have no more consequences than the vast number of chemical responses occurring all over the universe.  The same goes if I am the one doing the kicking, right?  It’s just chemistry.  And, where does Grayling get off talking about “choice.”  How can these great thinkers assume or even talk about choice?  All they can observe are stimuli and responses.  Sure, they can use words like “choice” or “decision” to pin as descriptors on the chemical reactions in my brain that occur after stimuli and prior to some action, but why should these chemical reactions be any more special than all the other chemical reactions going on in my body (or outside of it), such as those regulating my breathing or keeping my anal sphincter tightened.  Choice?  How can we possibly get choice in a universe that does not even have intention?

Any ethical theory has to start somewhere, and starting with the idea that humanity matters appeals to people of many philosophical bents.  Certainly the atheists can engage in the practice of moral reasoning (just as they can play chess or cricket), but that is far afield from having anything to say about morality.  Linker wants the new atheists to confront honestly the terror induced by their arguments, but I want to go a step further (a step that Damon may not want to take).  I think that in adopting their particular cosmology, the new atheists have forfeited any right to preach to the rest of us about ethics, about what people should value or how they should treat each other.  This is not (merely) as punishment for inflicting terror upon their fellow beings, but because the foundations of that cosmology shout forth, in every dimension, the utter worthlessness of humanity (actually, the utter worthlessness of everything).

If nothing starts with value or objective, then nothing can end with value or objective.  Of course the new atheists have played different variations of this game before.  They claim we have produced consciousness from unconsciousness, life from the absence of life, reason and order from chaos, beauty and art and love and sacrifice and kindness and anger and hate and spite from….chemistry.  They mock religious faith, yet the leap of faith required to believe in all these unobservable miracles they cling to is truly astounding.

So, fine.  Go live in your godless universe.  And, while you are at it, stop pretending you have anything coherent to tell the rest of us about morality.

9 thoughts on “Just chemistry

  1. As if “Do what I say or my imaginary friend will beat you up” really tells us anything about morality.

  2. Bravo, Sven! Now tell us how you REALLY feel about this topic! Seriously, well said, needs to be repeated often.

  3. Sven, are suggesting that an objective moral philosophy is impossible without reference to theology? Because Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Mill all do just this. Atheism doesn’t imply nihilism and materialism doesn’t imply determinism (or lack of souls, for that matter). I agree that some of the folks you mention are overly aggressive about religion-bashing, but you’re throwing out 2000 years of philosophy as a rejoinder.

    1. I would have to plead guilt in this case–sort of. My crude summary of all the philosophy you allude to is that it is based on the idea that human beings have, as autonomous creatures capable of reason, inherent dignity and worth and are, therefore, worthy of respect. From that starting point (or some similar specification) one gets thousands of years of moral philosophy. But that philosophy can only be true to the extent that it comes from true ethical assumptions, such as the one I just mentioned.

      For the sake of getting along in pluralistic society (and for the sake of treating people with the dignity and respect they deserve) I advocate that no one be forced to accept my version of true principles. But truth is truth whether or not you or I or anyone else accepts it. Moral philosophy is interesting and even useful, on occasion, but superb reasoning built on faulty premises has little value.

      As I just commented to a FB friend: “What I’m talking about is the meta-ethical question of why would we assume human beings have worth? How is that assumption justified? The new atheist dogma has a fixed starting point in which everything is worthless because worth isn’t even relevant. There is only physical matter and energy. One cannot draw from that cosmology any notion of worth or good or right, because those terms have no meaning in that cosmology. In fact they are explicitly excluded by scientific dogma. So, on its own terms, the new atheist dogma (or naturalistic meta-ethics, more generally) cannot provide a meta-ethical foundation for ethical thinking even though atheists can certainly have ethical principles, some of which are even true!

      In my view, we are only going to get true morality from reason if our reasoning is founded on a true understanding of why humanity exists in the first place. Otherwise, we are just playing intellectual games.

  4. FWIW, Aeon, I’d say that of course secular (non-theological) moral systems are possible, in the sense of “internally consistent.” But I’m unpersuaded that any of them can be self-grounding. That is, that they have compelling answers to the question, “why be just or moral in the first place?” Plato deserves special praise, in my view, for putting this problem at the center of his moral reflections (in Bk 1 of the Republic), but I don’t think he has a non-ironic answer to the question. Aristotle does, but it’s ultimately wrapped up with his account of the “divine” attributes of the philosopher (Ethics, Bk. 10). As for Kant and Mill, it all comes down to whether there is such a thing as “dignity” (grounding individual rights) apart from revelation of humanity being made in the imago Dei. I’m not convinced that it makes sense to think of dignity apart from God, but that’s the fourth or fifth contentious claim I’ll assert in this comment!

  5. Hi Damon – I think by the end of Bk 9, maybe even by the end of Bk 4, Plato has a perfectly serious answer, and I think Aristotle’s use of the word “divine” is more secular than it is theological, at least by modern uses of those labels. I won’t work hard defending Kant or Mill, but I’m pretty sure Kant’s defense of human dignity is non-theistic.

  6. >A fundamental law of science is that we cannot create something from nothing, which means that we cannot extract values from a valueless and unvalued universe.

    Right here is the critical mistake and where the essay begins to go wrong. (1) There is no such fundamental law of science, and (2) there is no such thing as “nothing”. Enterprising systems find a great many ways in which to “cheat the system”.

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