28 September 2011
On Sunday (September 18), Duke University Philosophy Professor Alex Rosenberg challenged the kind of old-fashioned humanism I am talking about with a brief op-ed piece arguing in favor of metaphysical naturalism (for a somewhat longer version, go here).
Metaphysical naturalism, as opposed to more modest pragmatic forms, is the claim that “reality contains only the kinds of things that hard science recognizes,” and Rosenberg is convinced that the practical success of hard science forces us to take this claim very seriously indeed.
In other words, if you wish to be strictly scientific about human beings, then many of those properties you naively thought were central to human existence—like knowing the difference between right and wrong, having a purpose in what we do, meaning something by what we say—must go out the window. From the point of view of metaphysical naturalism, things like right and wrong, purpose, and meaning literally do not exist.
Strange as it may have seemed that the Gray Lady should put her weight behind such esoteric philosophical musings, it began to make more sense two days later. It turns out Rosenberg’s essay was merely the opening fanfare before the main event: the apotheosis of Richard Dawkins in the Tuesday science supplement.
Dawkins, of course, is the famous evolutionary biologist, former Oxford University Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, prolific author, and New Atheist crusader.
In a fawning puff-piece entitled—apparently without irony—”A Knack for Bashing Orthodoxy,” the Times‘s reporter traces Dawkins’s rise from a colonial boyhood in East Africa, to discipleship at the feet of Dutch ethologist Niko Tinbergen, to his office as guardian of the flame of orthodox neo-Darwinism (against such heretics as Richard C. Lewontin, Stephen Jay Gould, and Simon Conway Morris), through to his present prominence as the foremost deity in the pantheon of modern organized atheism.
Admittedly, Dawkins would likely object that he is no god, in a literal manner of speaking (given that he does not recognize the existence of such beings). Perhaps, one ought rather to speak of his “apo-atheosis.”
In any case, Dawkins seems to have been appointed by the Times to play a role in the new twenty-first century Religion of Science similar to that played by the emperors in late Roman religion. Then as now, the cognoscenti are not required to believe in the actual efficacy of deification; it is enough that the new cult be promoted as widely as possible among the masses.
But why, exactly, is the celebration of a scientific luminary like Dawkins deserving of censure? Isn’t there a legitimate role for hero-worship in any society? And aren’t scientists the most eligible heroes of our time—the logical succesors to the Christian saints and martyrs in our secular age?
Here we have to distinguish two different questions. One is whether Richard Dawkins, the individual scientist, is deserving of elevation to the eminent position he now occupies in our public life. The other is whether newspapers like the Times ought to be in the business of promoting a new Religion of Science in the first place.
The first question is a fine one that I must postpone for another occasion. My topic today is not the merits of Richard Dawkins as a scientist, but rather what his apotheosis by the Times portends for contemporary culture.
But before turning to this second question, we must first gather more evidence. So far, we have only advanced as far as Tuesday. Wednesday’s issue of the Times, as it turns out, was to contain more revelations.
That day brought the trumpeting—on the front page, no less—of the discovery of gay squid.
What are gay squid? They are small creatures, less than six inches long, that live half a mile down in the Pacific Ocean. Belonging to the species Octopoteuthis deletron, these diminutive molluscs lead a solitary existence in the dark.
It is understandable, then, in terms of functional biology, that the mating system of O. deletron should involve males’ shooting packets of sperm at any other conspecifics that happen by. We know they do this because scientists have found that females and males of the species have an equal likelihood of being speared by sperm packets. In other words, the males simply cannot tell the sexes apart.
Yet another fascinating fact of natural history—no doubt about it. But what is this article doing on page one? Why was it given more prominence than the incomparably more consequential article on Friday about the apparent evidence that neutrinos may—in direct contradiction to one of the hitherto best confirmed scientific theories überhaupt, i.e., Einsteinian relativity—be capable of traveling faster than the speed of light, which was relegated to page six? (The longer feature article on Saturday on the same subject—similar in scope to the O. deletron article—was buried on page 10.)
Now, it is true that the author of the O. deletron article quotes the scientist upon whose work his report is based as demurring at labeling the species “gay squid.” But in that case, why not wait until the following Tuesday, and publish a brief mention in the regular “Observatory” column of the Science supplement, where curious facts of natural history normally appear? Does anyone really believe that the O. deletron story would have appeared on the front page of the Times if we were not intended to understand that it was about gay squid?
In fact, we do not need to speculate. The author of the article is quite explicit. Here is what he says:
. . . [O. deletron] is the latest addition to the hundreds of species that are know to engage in same-sex sex. Over the years, scientists have added one creature after another to the list, making it clear that although Nature may abhor a vacuum, it seems to be fine with just about everything else.
How are readers supposed to understand this other than as an elliptical argument (an enthymeme)? We may expand the implied argument more or less as follows:
- God was the traditional arbiter of right and wrong.
- However, there is no God.
- Nature is the successor to God.
- Therefore, Nature is now the arbiter of right and wrong.
I claim this is the most reasonable construction to put on the reporter’s words, in view of the otherwise inexplicable prominence given to the article. According to this logic, then, females of the species Homo sapiens may proceed to devour their sexual partners in the act of copulation, since that is what female praying mantises and black widow spiders do.
Obviously, I am touching on many very difficult philosophical issues. I do not mean to imply that the moral status of human homosexual behavior—or of human sexual behavior generally—is an easy problem. I am merely presenting more evidence of the absurd lengths to which the Times will go to advance its own political orthodoxy by trying to give it a philosophical basis in a new Religion of Science. In this sense, the pushing of metaphysical naturalism, the apotheosis of Richard Dawkins, and the splashing of gay squid across the front page are all of a piece.
There was one more interesting article in Wednesday’s edition, which I am sure the Times‘s editors did not consciously intend to figure in their campaign on behalf of metaphysical naturalism, but which I believe is highly revealing nonetheless. That is the latest piece on Silvio Berlusconi and his almost touching devotion to bunga bunga.
In case you haven’t been following the escapades of Italy’s Prime Minister over the past several years, “bunga bunga” is the term he uses to refer—with a devil-may-care, boys-will-be-boys charm—to the numerous well-documented parties at which he has sex with multiple, very young women, mostly prostitutes.
But I wouldn’t want to be too hard on the good Cavaliere (Berlusconi was knighted in 1977). After all, isn’t he just living out, thanks to his wealth and power, the dream that all males of the species H. sapiens harbor in their breasts? And don’t we now know—thanks to Darwin—that this dream is necessarily one of unlimited copulation with as many different partners as possible, without any emotional connection or consequences? Because—so the Darwinian story goes—males who acted in this way left more offspring, and so on.
To be sure, there is abundant evidence (turn on any television set) that this is indeed the self-image of a great many males in our culture. It is a way of thinking that has even begun to infect the female half of the species, formerly more circumspect in matters of sexual congress. If that is the case, then much of the outrage expressed at Berlusconi is merely hypocritical. Which is probably why he still remains in power.
However, it may be objected that we do not need Darwin to know that men are attracted (tempted, in the old-fashioned locution) by illicit sex. This fact may be read in sacred texts, and may be consulted in the heart of most any man, if he is honest with himself. But in that case, what is the connection between the metaphysical naturalism being pushed by the Times and the Age of Bunga Bunga in which we are all now living?
It is this. Traditional moral teachings, religious precepts, and philosophical analyses all recognize that right and wrong cannot be read off of our biological urges. Rather, our biological urges must be directed along the channels that tradition, religion, and philosophy deem best. Moral education consists, in its essence, in shaping a human animal’s biological instincts into the culturally learned habits of a virtuous adult human person.
Why is bunga bunga morally wrong? Because decent people don’t behave that way. Because it breaks the sixth commandment. Because it treats another human being as a means only, and not as an end in herself or himself.
The specific reason is not as important as the recognition that H. sapiens—alone of all the animals—has both a lower, biological nature and a higher, spiritual nature, and that all human behavior, though inevitably partly shaped by the lower nature, must also always be held accountable to the higher one.
This traditional understanding of human nature as consisting of a higher level guiding and restraining a lower one is the view against which metaphysical naturalism and evolutionary biology have resolutely set their face. The Age of Bunga Bunga demands a flattened view of human nature—one in which the soaring spire of the human spirit is collapsed into the foundation of the animal body.
From this perspective, Richard Dawkins is not only a god, but also an Evangelist of our new age. Though just why the Times sees it as its mission to spread his Gospel far and wide remains an open question.
No doubt, Dawkins will protest vigorously. He will likely respond that he is only interested in the truth. Our first duty, he likes to say, is to speak the truth, and let the chips fall where they may.
And so it is. But that raises the question: Do metaphysical naturalism and evolutionary biology give us a true account of human nature?
This is by no means a purely theoretical question, because the flattened view of human nature is not just being disseminated by The New York Times and other media organs. It is also being taught to our young people, under the guise of hard science, from college and university lecterns throughout this country.
Why does that matter? Because ideas matter, and human beings tend to live up—or down—to the idea they have of themselves. That is why making the case for the scientific falsity of the flattened view of human nature is a moral and educational imperative of our time.
For this reason, I will revisit these challenging issues in future posts.