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.