More chemistry

A few weeks ago, Jason responded to my critique of the new atheists (which was inspired by an excellent review done by Damon Linker).  Jason’s response was interesting but (modestly) mis-characterizes my argument.

Jason boiled down what I was saying to a simple logical argument for the existence of God.  Though I don’t mind such attempts, it was not my purpose.  My key point was not about the existence or role of God (which would require some sort of definition for God, for starters).  My essay was on the implications of denying the metaphysical.

Science is agnostic, and rightly so.  Science is about drawing conclusions from observable phenomena.  For instance, human beings have the capability to discuss moral values and can behave in ways consistent with moral values in observable and describable ways.  A large body of neuroscience literature can tie these moral faculties, emotions, and reasoning back to basic brain chemistry.  And evolutionary theory can describe the development of human morality through the powerful (yet often hard to falsify) theory of natural selection.  Moral notions that improve reproductive fitness are more likely to be selected and become part of the human genome.  Cultural evolution of moral notions happens, too, as those values which promote the survival of human societies are carried forth not only in our genes but in our cultural patterns.

But those observable patterns do nothing to answer the question of why one should care about them.  And science has nothing to say about whether the existence of humanity, the world we occupy or even the universe is something we should care about.  Indeed, why should the moral intuitions and reasoning of any species be of a concern unless there is a reason to care about that species in the first place.  In the scientific view, the initial big bang created a universe of energy and matter.  But there was no purpose for this, no cause, no choice, no reason, no intent.  There was just the physical.

So, at every point in the natural history of our species we have consisted only of chemistry.  We cannot be more because there is nothing more.   The only difference between our world and the primordial soup from which crawled the first life forms is that the chemistry on the earth now (including the creatures known as human beings) is different than it was before.  Not better or worse, just different.  Creatures on the earth now are more capable of sustaining themselves against various environmental forces, but they consist, still, only of chemistry.  Since all that existed at the beginning was chemistry, we can’t borrow from the metaphysical world and come up reasons for why some chemical compounds (humans) matter more than other chemical compounds (rocks).  The period table contains all sorts of information about the universe.  It contains no information about morality.

A simple process of water crossing cell membranes is, according to this hyper-naturalistic view, not fundamentally different than a complex mass of chemicals known as a human being offering assistance to another human being.  Both are the result of chemical process that are entirely the function of a long string of pointless, random events occurring in a pointless, random universe.  Chemicals do not make choices.  They just obey the immutable laws of the universe.  Do not the chemical interactions in our brain that precede the chemically-based signals from our brains to the different body parts (signals such as: do this, say that, pick that up) obey the exact same fundamental laws that cause osmosis to occur?  Do chemicals stop and consider their actions?  Well, maybe if you get the right combination of chemicals together in sufficient numbers in the right quantities and combinations, they will pause for a moment of reflection?

All the new atheists and their naturalistic brethren really have to tell me is a story of how the chaotic universe produced creatures that are capable of intuitions (both conscious and subconscious, perhaps) and reasoning, which they like to call morality.  But that morality exists, according to them, only because it has selective value that produced and preserves our species.  They have nothing to tell me about why the species or anything about it—including its ability to reason—has any value in the first place.

They can tell me, perhaps, how living a moral life might bring me or others more pleasure or satisfaction (all of which can be reduced, of course, to chemical reactions in the brain), or they can tell me how certain ways of living are consistent with respecting the dignity and autonomy of others.  But they can tell me nothing about why I should care about any of it.

It is from that unobserved, unexplained wellspring of value that true morality comes.  It is what gives us answers, however incomplete, to why one would care about humanity and the moral questions humans ask. One thing is sure. Those answers don’t come from the periodic table.

8 thoughts on “More chemistry

  1. Morality resides at the intersection of the physical and metaphysical.

    Any attempt to deny either the physical or metaphysical when talking about morality is a fool’s errand (this is sort of a enlargement of the old is-ought problem).

    The debate over free will is an old one. The new hyper-naturalists proclaim ideas that, from start to finish, preclude any kind of free will, making a discussion of morality pointless, other than in an instrumental (“I feel pleasure when you are nice to me” or “societies flourish when norms of reciprocity evolve”) sort of way—very unsatisfying at a deeper level.

    A universe that is completely pointless from the beginning is, at any point in time after the beginning, still completely pointless.

    Hope that is brief enough.

  2. I agree with Sven that it would be a more satisfying life and provide a stronger sense of morality if there was metaphysical meaning. Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. Wishful thinking does not make it so. My question is how do we connect to this metaphysical meaning? It seems that it is really hard to find this meaning without clouding it with our personal beliefs. Everyone seems to find their own meaning and I am not sure if there is an elephant behind all this searching. It saddens me, I wish there was. I just don’t see it.

    1. Timothy, I think you are making here the exact same point that Damon Linker made in his review, namely that rejecting the metaphysical is not costless, and he wanted the new atheists to be honest about those costs, which are significant. He argued the the attempt to plug in a naive secular humanism into the void left behind is just so much “happy talk.”

      1. I did finally read Damon Linker’s review and I am saying the same thing. So are you saying something different? Maybe that we need the metaphysical even though we can never be sure? It is just an axiom we must accept because we can’t talk about morality any other way?

      2. I would say:
        1.Completely removing the metaphysical from our conception of reality makes a existential hole that cannot be filled by secular humanism.
        2. My stronger claim (which I don’t know that Damon would agree with) is that the naturalistic account cannot satisfactorily account for many of the essential building blocks of ethics: life, consciousness, choice, reason–to name a few. Indeed, I think that the notion those building blocks were the result of a pointless, random universe is a far greater “leap of faith” than the belief that humanity came about through design.

  3. Thank you for your reply. I don’t expect a further answer, but what exactly “the intersection of the physical and metaphysical” means is not readily apparent.

    1. Well, I agree. But I would say that nothing about metaphysics is “readily apparent”–by definition!

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