Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Meaning, Motivation and Morals

I haven't read much of Richard Dawkins before; in general, I distrust the quality of today's controversial intellectual celebrities, and much prefer to read the thinkers of yesteryear. But when I came home for Christmas, I found a copy of The God Delusion lying around (I assume that my father had been reading it in the hope of better understanding his son), and I gave it a try. I've been mostly impressed by the book; where I'd frankly been expecting a collection of straw men and shoddy arguments regarding the nonexistence of God*, Dawkins has been rather honorable in confronting the actual objections in a clear manner. (There are a few cheap shots at religion's expense, and quite a bit of egotistical name-dropping, but these are cosmetic flaws as concerns the content.)

That being said, I've noticed a few places where the best reply on the part of religion quite simply seems to be overlooked by Dawkins. The most significant one concerns his main argument, that the existence of an ultimate God is terribly unlikely because complex entities like intelligence are more likely to arise through certain gradual processes than all at once. But I'll have to devote another post to my difficulty both with that argument and, on the other side, with the Uncaused Cause argument for God's existence (for both fall into the same trap, in my opinion). Another oversight concerns the Bible as a source of moral insight and inspiration; I think that he gives short shrift to the exegetical traditions around Scripture as the wellspring of its real moral and spiritual content for believers.

At the moment, though, I want to address an argument of Dawkins' which engages the subject of my last post (as poorly as I expressed it then). In a section of Chapter 6 entitled "If There Is No God, Why Be Good?", he confronts the assertion that religion is necessary for the motivation of right and wrong, but restricts himself to the mercenary interpretation of motive- that a religion only motivates its adherents to do good and avoid evil by promising rewards and punishments in the next life. He afterwards confronts the notion that a God is necessary to know what is good and what is evil, and argues against it on the basis that we do in fact disagree with what was in the past the content of religiously revealed morals.

But there is a third alternative, the one with which I struggled most in the last few months. It is that the existence of a God of the sort believed by Christians provides a guarantee that there is some solution to the problems of morality in human life, even if in some theologies we are not guaranteed to know that answer yet. I had no problem with ethics continuing to evolve (as I had no problem with some amount of development in doctrine), but I had assurance that the moral truth was objective and discoverable (at least with God's assistance)- and this provided psychological comfort when following the commands of Catholic morality became difficult†. The sense that some mode of being resonates with the very cosmos is very satisfying- and it is this that I have at last been forced to surrender by my apostasy.

I hope that I shall be able to hold fast to reasonable conceptions of the good even without this metaphysical assurance that they conform (better or worse) to some objective standard; but I can't pretend I've lost nothing in abandoning that semi-Platonist viewpoint.

* In retrospect, I'd assumed that "Darwin's bulldog" would prefer sensationalism to argument because I'd assumed he rose to prominence in the role of instigating controversy, but in fact he first arrived on the scene as the promulgator/popularizer of a better understanding of Darwin's mechanism of natural selection- the zoologist's equivalent of Stephen Hawking, more or less.

† However, it may or may not be true that this subjective aid provides real help in actual situations; I wonder how psychological studies compare the ability of atheists and theists to hold fast to their professed standards in the presence of temptation.

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