John Lennox and @Eusebius McKaiser debate: does morality need God?

eusebiusMckaisercroppedA trip to Johannesburg last week (for the unlikely purpose of presenting a paper at a nutrition conference!) was well-timed, in that I had the opportunity to both attend a debate between Christian apologist John Lennox and Eusebius McKaiser, as well as to join Eusebius in studio the next day for a chat on religion and its place in state-run schools.

You can find the embedded stream of my interview with Eusebius at the bottom of this post. But while it’s still relatively fresh in memory, I thought I should capture a few thoughts on the debate for those of you who could not attend. A recording of debate will appear on YouTube at some point too, I’m told.

The topic of the debate was “Morality and God: is there a connection?”, although the conversation also ended up touching on other issues including the role of God in generating significance in life, and whether atheists are at all handicapped with regard to understanding science.

In his opening remarks, Lennox made the claim that science and atheism were essentially in conflict, as atheism undermines rationality. This was the first of many occasions where I had the clear sense that Lennox was failing to extend himself beyond certain premises that he considered to be axiomatic.

For him, God generates meaning, in that God creates the syntax and grammar of science – the order of things, the directions in which they flow, how they fit together. So without grasping God, you’re handicapped in your capacity to understand science at all. (This is my analogy, but I think it captures what he was saying.)

This question of mine (above) was put to him later in the evening, and he responded by professing ignorance regarding the state of Islamic science. This evaded my question, in that the dilemma I tried to make him grapple with was the possibility that his religion was interchangeable with any other for the purposes of generating this scientific foundation.

If it was not, he’d have to argue that his was superior – an easy thing to assert, but not easy to make a case for, and one of those occasions where the fundamentalism of the axiomatic premises I spoke of above would be exposed.

Another moment of disappointment to me was when he described evolution as a “mindless unguided process”, which reveals a rather caricatured and false view of evolution. Evolution is strongly guided by natural selection – but if one equivocates around what “guided” means, or rather, stacks the deck in favour of only one sort of guided (by a conscious agent, like God), then Lennox can certainly win the day, but only at the expense of making a plainly circular argument.

And that’s the problem with these debates. I’ve debated a couple of apologists over the years also, and besides the opportunity these debates present for showing an audience how arguments work (or don’t work), there’s pretty much zero prospect of productive argument between the antagonists.

Even strong critiques have little impact, such as when McKaiser exposed the inconsistency of Lennox (and all religious folk, to an extent) happily living in the empirical world of cause and effect when it comes to their day to day lives, but then bringing what is (to an atheist) essentially magic into the conversation when speaking of the souls, free will, morality and so forth.

We have a number of compelling (and competing) accounts for how morality evolves or is generated in animals that demonstrate moral instincts – and many of these are more plausible than an account requiring the sort of leap of faith that religion does (and, never mind the difficulty of then making a principled choice between the various religious accounts).

Again, it would only be if you’re predisposed to be sympathetic to the religious (and Christian) account of these things that they have any chance of gaining traction. In a fair fight, as it were, the religious account would be dropped from the list of plausible hypotheses fairly early on.

Similar tactics (and results) were in evidence with questions around the significance of life – a question that only becomes interesting if you grant that life needs some grand metaphysical meaning. There’s no reason to grant that premise, though – it’s a challenge that only has any force because it’s the product of centuries of religious privilege.

The conversation was fair-minded for the most part, although there were a number of sly digs from each debater towards his opponent. I thought Lennox more guilty of this, but my count might be unreliable, thanks both to my epistemic framework and the fact that Eusebius is a friend.

I suspect that Eusebius and I don’t agree on the morality question, although that requires that I hear his view outside of a context in which he was mostly attempting to rebut Lennox, rather than offer his full explanation of how moral principles are generated.

From what I heard on Thursday, Eusebius is a moral realist, which I’m not, but then, at other times, he seemed to speak as if his account of the objectivity of moral truths was one grounded in something like rationality, reciprocal altruism and the social contract, which together make certain moral principles binding on any rational agent.

If that’s true, we’d agree in substance, but I’d object that this doesn’t mean objectivity or moral realism, but rather that we’d converge on the same principles for pragmatic and contingent reasons – certain moral principles would be akin to conclusions in science, in that they are the best-evidenced, rather than being true by necessity.

Were you there? If so, feel free to let me know what you thought, below.

Chief Justice Mogoeng, religion and the law

In September of 2011, I was one of those to express concerns regarding Mogoeng Mogoeng’s suitability for the position of Chief Justice. At the time, I noted that “there is a distinct danger that he would be unable to separate his faith from his duties as a jurist”, and also remarked on how his appointment would occur in a context of apparent tolerance for homophobia on the part of the President himself, as well as in the appointment of someone like Jon Qwelane as ambassador to Uganda.

However, there has been no reason (that I’m aware of, at least) to fear that the worst has in fact come to pass. Morally conservative he may be, and also homophobic, but I’ve seen nothing to indicate that Mogoeng has been anything other than the loyal servant of the Constitution that he swore to be when appointed. Continue reading “Chief Justice Mogoeng, religion and the law”

On Pew’s Global report on morality (including South Africa)

PG_14.04.11_MoralityHomePage_260x2601The Pew Research Center recently released their 2013 Global Attitudes Survey, summarising responses from 40 117 respondents in 40 countries to various moral issues. A local journalist called me for comment this morning, but as usual, only soundbites will survive and besides, many readers of Synapses might never spot the resulting article in any event. So, here are some thoughts on the Pew results as they relate to South Africa. Continue reading “On Pew’s Global report on morality (including South Africa)”

Welcome, robot overlords

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

On a flight back from somewhere, earlier this year, the pilot announced to us that we’d just been treated to a fully automated landing. While nobody expressed any concern, there were a few thoughtful or confused looks around the cabin, of people not quite sure how to respond to this news.

My first thought was regarding the timing of the announcement. Just in case anyone would be concerned at being landed by an algorithm, the SAA (I think it was) management (yes, I know) presumably decided to only let us know once the deed had successfully been done. But I also wondered how many others were, like me, thinking something along the lines of “it’s about time”.

It’s about time, I mean, that we acknowledge that humans are inferior to computers at making some decisions, and that we should therefore remove humans from the equation. And not just some – in areas where decisions are made by reference to a multitude of factors, and the intended outcome (such as landing a plane safely) is unambiguous, I’d be tempted to up that to “most”.

Pilots are of course well trained, and no doubt need to pass regular checks for things that might impair judgement, like drugs, alcohol or sleep-deprivation. That’s one of the reasons that far fewer people die from accidents involving planes than die from accidents involving cars. But another reason is that we think far too highly of ourselves, and our own competence at performing routine tasks in adverse circumstances – like driving home after one too many drinks.

We’re reluctant to understand ourselves as a simple statistical data-point, far more likely to conform to the mean than not. Anecdotes trump data every time for most of us, which is why we can think that we’re superb drivers while under the influence of something, until that day when we’re just a drunk driver, like all the other drunk drivers who have caused accidents since booze first got behind the wheel of a large metal object.

But despite our occasional incompetence in this regard – and note, also an incompetence that we can to some extent control – is it time to hand everyday driving over to computers also? I’d say it might well be, for those of us who can afford to. Because even if you’re as alert as you could possibly be, you’re still not able to simultaneously engage with as many variables as a computer can, and nor are you able to react to the outputs of that engagement as quickly.

Computers – or robots – pose questions beyond whether they or a human would be superior at performing a given task, like getting you to the church on time or destroying an enemy installation during war. In war, proportionality of response is a key issue for determining whether a drone attack is legal or not, and as soon as a drone is fully autonomous, we’d need to be able to trust that its software got those judgements right.

Or would we? The standards that we set for human beings allows for mistakes, so it would be inconsistent to refuse the possibility of error for robots, even if they were unable to express contrition, or to make amends. As with many encroachments of technology into our existence, robotics is an area where we need to be careful of privileging the way that humans have always done things, just because we are human.

Cloned or genetically modified food, in vitro fertilisation, surrogate motherhood, stem-cell research (to list but a few examples) are all areas where either a sort of naturalistic fallacy (thinking something morally superior or inferior depending on whether it’s natural or not) or some sort of emotive revulsion (the “yuk factor”) get in the way of a clear assessment of costs versus benefits. When speaking of robots driving our children home from school, a similarly emotive reaction can also cloud our thinking.

Just as with any data point in an set, you and me and everyone we know more often feels superior in whatever skill set than actually is better at that skill than the mean. The mean describes something: in this case, it describes the level of performance of the average person. And if we were all better than average, the average would be higher. For driving, it’s not, or we wouldn’t have an average of over 700 road fatalities every month.

So the question to ask is: when can we be confident that – on average – fewer people will die on the roads if cars are robotic than if the drivers are human? If we’ve reached the point of being confident about that, then the moral calculus shifts against human drivers. If you have the means and opportunity, you’d be acting less morally to drive your kids to school than have a computer do so – regardless of how this feels.

In the New Yorker, Gary Marcus recently invited us to consider this scenario:

Your car is speeding along a bridge at 50mph when [an] errant school bus carrying 40 innocent children crosses its path. Should your car swerve, possibly risking the life of its owner (you), in order to save the children, or keep going, putting all 40 kids at risk? If the decision must be made in milliseconds, the computer will have to make the call.

As Sarah Wild and others have pointed out in response, this sort of scenario does raise question about which rules we would like the car to follow, who makes those rules, and who is to blame when some unfortunate accident or death occurs. But where I think most comment on this issue gets it wrong is in labelling the moral dilemmas “tricky”, as Wild does.

If we can, on average, save many more lives by using robotic cars instead of human-controlled ones, the greater good would at some point certainly be maximised. Yes, there will be circumstances where the “wrong” person dies, because a maximise-life-saving algorithm will not be adaptable to very idiosyncratic circumstances, like the one described by Marcus.

In general, though, the robotic car will not speed, will never run a red light, and will never exceed the threshold for maintaining traction around a corner. It will never drive drunk, and will be far better at anticipating the movements of other vehicles (even if they’re not robots, on the same information grid themselves), thanks to a larger data-set than ours and an objective assessment of that data.

So it’s not that there is a tricky moral dilemma here. What’s tricky is that we aren’t able to view it – and ourselves – as a simply economic problem, where the outcome that would be best for all of us would be to set things up in a way that maximises life, on aggregate.

Any solution that prioritises human agency or building in mechanisms to know who to blame when things go wrong is understandable. But, once the driverless car is sophisticated enough, it would also be a solution that operates contrary to a clear moral good.

The Bill of Responsibilities for the youth of South Africa

If you tune in to Cape Talk or Radio702 right now, you can listen to the launch of the “Bill of Responsibilities for the youth of South Africa“, and hear the Minister of Basic Education and representatives from LeadSA explain why they think this is a great initiative.

They would think so, of course, seeing as the Bill is the creation of the Department of Education and LeadSA. It’s also sanctified by the National Religious Leaders Forum. But they are all wrong, and this is a counter-productive move. Continue reading “The Bill of Responsibilities for the youth of South Africa”

Suffer the little children

There are, of course, evil people in every organisation. Some school teachers, scout masters, etc. have abused children in the past (and are currently doing so), but that doesn’t yet tell us anything about those professions in general. We’d be indulging in the logical fallacy of guilt by association if we were to assume that “the Church” is evil or complicit because of the actions of a few members who have recently been all over the news for being all over the children who were in their “care”.

However, it’s in the Church’s response to these allegations that its moral character, rather than the moral character of the abusing priests, is revealed. And here’s where we have a problem. It should surely not be the case that wearing a funny hat grants you immunity from legal processes. Continue reading “Suffer the little children”

‘Twas Easter and the slithey toves did gyre and gimble on the roads

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

The philosopher Simon Blackburn, describing Karen Armstrong’s attitude to religion, once remarked that it was “reminiscent of Alice after hearing the nonsense poem Jabberwocky: ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are’.”

As Easter approaches, some of these elusive ideas dominate radio talk-shows and a disproportionate number of column-centimetres in newspapers, regardless of the fact that everyone is usually saying exactly what they said last year.

Of course, the ideas are most often accompanied by some unpleasant facts, such as the increase in deaths and injuries on our roads resulting from herds of families heading to reunions, celebrations or simply vacations. But as for the ideas themselves – rebirth, renewal, sacrifice, atonement and the like – we see them infecting both unbelievers and believers.

The majority of those living in a society forged in a Judeo-Christian tradition end up partaking in ritualistic eating, drinking and general merriment, regardless of whether they are committed to any theological underpinnings for those ideas.

On one level, this is not incoherent for unbelievers at all, seeing as festivals such as Easter and Christmas were established traditions long before the Roman Catholic Church appropriated all the pagan shrines and claimed the festivals for itself, premised on a version of history that is now regarded as true by many, if only through being repeated often enough.

Some of us, though, will find ourselves at dinner tables shared by relatives and friends who do take these festivals and that version of history seriously, and who sometimes appear to believe that we can know exactly which ideas our heads should be filled with, and why. And those of us on the outside of this belief system may play along, sitting politely while prayers are uttered, not protesting when these relatives and friends say what might seem to us to be crazy things.

The extent to which the secular community has an obligation to play along – or the opposite obligation to protest – is a running debate. A key element of this debate is the possible incoherence involved in your lack of belief not standing in the way of allowing others to continue believing absurd things. The politics of these situations are complex, though, and I don’t mean to argue that one has an obligation to always burst the belief-bubbles of others.

After all, some of these religious ideas, as exemplified by Easter and Christmas, are noble and good: friendship, family, and the simple pleasures of a good meal come to mind, as does the welcome notion of having a few days off work. But if one gets the sense that these ideas – along with others not mentioned – are somehow premised on these festivals, the fear grows that they may become reserved solely for that time of year.

In other words, perhaps some of us – having done our duty in being nice to Aunt Sally around the Easter dinner table – might feel no obligation to be nice to her again until Christmas rolls around. In case this sounds implausible, note that a similar effect is being noticed with regard to “green” consumers, where recent research indicates that they are less likely to be kind, and more likely to steal, as a result of their perceptions of themselves as “good people”. As Dieter Frey, a University of Munich psychologist, observes, “At the moment in which you have proven your credentials in a particular area, you tend to allow yourself to stray elsewhere”.

As with resolutions at the start of each new year, or that month following a trip to the dentist where one flosses obsessively before reverting to more typical patterns, our plans and intentions count for little if they affect our behaviour for a trivially short time. More to the point, they count for little as indications of our characters when they affect our behaviour only when we are reminded to behave differently, due to the promptings of events on a calendar.

All these holiday seasons are invariably filled with both the best and the worst of human character – as are all days and months. For every heart-warming tale of families reunited, this Easter will bring another tale relating to a Catholic priest and an altar-boy, or another about a parent so in the grip of pseudoscience or some paranoia that she is unwilling to vaccinate her one-year-old child, thereby endangering his life (and the lives of everyone else on the planet, in a small way).

But it’s always this way – people do stupid things and clever things, they harm and they help, and they sometimes have no clue which they are doing, or why they have chosen one thing rather than another. And yes, perhaps the balance shifts towards the positive over Easter. Though I’m not too sure about that given all the lives traditionally lost on the roads at this time of year – sadly, too many in pilgrimages to venues such as Moria.

It won’t, however, make much difference if people are especially nice to each other simply because they are reminded to do so by a date on a calendar, and by what that calendar tells them about their metaphysics. As the secular members of South African society often remark, a definition of “goodness” which is premised on being accountable to Big Daddy hardly makes one virtuous – and by extension, being charitable and generally “nice” to one’s fellow humans because it’s Easter or Christmas is not the motivation I’d hope for, seeing as I then have no guarantee you won’t be a complete tosspot for the rest of the year.

Taryn Hodgson’s pornography problem

The Christian Action Network’s (CAN) “international coordinator”, Taryn Hodgson, seems to be on some sort of PR offensive. Last month, she was accusing the Cape Times and Argus of denying the “hidden holocaust” of abortion, and more recently, she took time out from being upset at things to offer an apology for the lies told by CAN around an aborted debate between Peter Hammond, myself and Tauriq Moosa. Continue reading “Taryn Hodgson’s pornography problem”

Good without god

Over at Talking Philosophy, a post by Jeff Mason has generated a few interesting comments. The post itself is interesting (hence the comments, I suppose), but one comment (by Tom, a self-professed religious believer) is perhaps particularly interesting. Here’s an extract from the comment, followed by some general comments in response:

religion, particularly belief in a deity, is an incredibly useful concept the human mind uses to funnel its understanding of many issues into language which is not only powerfully symbolic, but also compact and economical. Finally, religion tightens the concept of duty due to the psychological implications (a la Pascal Boyer) of a personal god in relation to our intuitive psychology of each other. Continue reading “Good without god”

Moral agency

I’ve been thinking more about the National Interfaith Leadership Council, following an invitation to participate in the After 8 Debate (SAFM, September 25, around 08h05 NOW POSTPONED) alongside Ray McCauley and a representative of the SA Council of Churches.

Part of the problem with religion hijacking moral discourse is the way in which it dumbs people down, and makes them unable to see that moral conclusions are the result of arguments – not simply absolute rules that we learn via some or other collection of myths (where how we choose which such collection to pay attention to is anyone’s guess).

In these moral arguments, a starting point that’s rarely considered is that of what makes something a moral issue in the first place – for example, I find it difficult to imagine any set of circumstances in which same-sex marriage even gets off the ground as a potential moral issue.

The other allegedly moral issue that the NILC have been making a noise about is abortion – something which barely counts as a moral issue, in that I’d like to think that moral agents need to be involved before something counts as a moral issue.

On the standard criteria of being able to reason and make judgements, foetuses are clearly not moral agents – and even on broader criteria such as sentience, or the ability to feel pain, early-stage foetuses would not make the grade either.

This is not to say that there are no good arguments against certain attitudes about, or laws regulating, abortion – it’s simply unlikely to be the case that they will be good moral arguments. And we should sometimes remember that not every issue we feel strongly about should also be considered a moral issue – and that not every moral issue should also be considered a legal issue.

I’m afraid that it’s a bit more complicated than that.