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Ross Douthat is Wrong About Me (and God)

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/Getty Images News/Getty Images

At his own New York Times opinion blog, Ross Douthat has responded to my New Republic column criticizing his own Christmas column. In that piece, Douthat dismissed secularism as a "rope bridge flung across a chasm" that "wafts into a logical abyss."

He further claimed that there were serious cracks in materialism—cracks illustrated by philosopher Thomas Nagel's unwarranted claims for a teleological force in evolution, as well as by Steven Weinberg's correct claim that we don't yet understand everything about physics. These comprised Douthat's sole evidence that the materialist paradigm is about to disintegrate.

In his new piece, “The confidence of Jerry Coyne," Douthat continues his cluelessness by trying to show that my materialism is inconsistent in two respects and overly confident in another. His arguments:

1.  If I think the "self" is an illusion, I have no justification for saying that I have a "purpose." 


So Coyne’s vision for humanity here is heroic, Promethean, quasi-existentialist: Precisely because the cosmos has no architect or plan or underlying purpose, we are free to “forge” our own purposes, to “make” meaning for ourselves, to create an ethics worthy of a free species, to seize responsibility for our own lives and codes and goals rather than punting the issue to some imaginary skygod. (Ayn Rand could not have put it better.) And these self-created purposes have the great advantage of being really, truly real, whereas the purposes suggested by religion are by definition “illusory.”

Well and good.  But then halfway through this peroration, we have as an aside the confession that yes, okay, it’s quite possible given materialist premises that “our sense of self is a neuronal illusion.” At which point the entire edifice suddenly looks terribly wobbly—because who, exactly, is doing all of this forging and shaping and purpose-creating if Jerry Coyne, as I understand him (and I assume he understands himself) quite possibly does not actually exist at all? The theme of his argument is the crucial importance of human agency under eliminative materialism, but if under materialist premises the actual agent is quite possibly a fiction, then who exactly is this I who “reads” and “learns” and “teaches,” and why in the universe’s name should my illusory self believe Coyne’s bold proclamation that his illusory self’s purposes are somehow “real” and worthy of devotion and pursuit?

Douthat somehow sees this as a "contradiction."  Apparently his notion of "purpose" involves something given by Almighty God, and therefore whatever comes from the atheistic collection of neurons that calls itself “Jerry Coyne” cannot apprehend a purpose.

But of course Jerry Coyne does exist as an identifiable physical entity that feels itself to be an agent. True, that agency is an illusion: That is, it’s not what it seems to be. There is no little person in my brain that directs my thoughts and activities. There is no “Coyne soul" separate from my neurons, nor is there a “Douthat soul." But there still is a human being that bears my name and has desires and feelings different from those of other beings. These are certainly as "real" as any of Douthat’s emotions. Before we accept Douthat’s God-given “purpose” as more real than mine, I submit that he should provide some hard evidence for his God’s existence.

Further, I maintain, as do many philosophers and neuroscientists, that our sense of agency is a remarkable illusion confected by evolution through the arrangement of our neurons. It may well have been a feature that was evolutionarily advantageous—a product of natural selection. And that evolved collection of molecules, with its sense of agency, takes pleasure in certain activities and feels that it has goals. That those feelings and goals are an inexorable product of our genes and environments is discomfiting to some, but that's where the evidence points.  And while our goals are more complicated than those of, say, a squirrel, whose "purpose" is to reproduce, gather nuts, and bask in the sun, they all come down to whatever motivates an evolved organism—from the simple goals of simple organisms to the complex goals of complex organisms with intricate brains.

Douthat doesn't like this because he accepts only those purposes bestowed by a celestial deity.  But there's simply no evidence for such a thing.  He wants there to be more than materialism, but there's no evidence for that, either. We have no need of such hypotheses, except as childish desires for father figures, afterlives, and goals that we’re too lazy to forge for ourselves.

2. If we are evolved beings, then there is no justification for being moral.


Coyne proposes three arguments in favor of a cosmopolitan altruism, two of which are circular: Making a “harmonious society” and helping “those in need” are reasons for altruism that presuppose a certain view of the moral law, in which charity and harmony are considered worthwhile and important goals. (If my question is, “what’s the justification for your rights-based egalitarianism?” saying “because it’s egalitarian!” is not much of an answer.)

The third at least seems to have some kind of Darwinian-ish, quasi-scientific logic, but among other difficulties it’s an argument that only holds so long as the altruistic choice comes at a relatively low cost: If you’re a white Southerner debating whether to speak out against a lynching party or a Dutch family contemplating whether to hide your Jewish neighbors from the SS, the respect factor isn’t really in play—as, indeed, it rarely is in any moral dilemma worthy of the name. (And of course, depending on your ideas about harmony and stability, Coyne’s “harmonious society” argument might also seem like a case against opposing Jim Crow or anti-Semitism—because why rock the boat on behalf of a persecuted minority when stability and order are the greater goods?)

The first two arguments are not at all circular, but the results of reasoning and evolution.

I've often said that I don't know how much of human morality comes from natural selection's instilling in us certain behaviors and feelings, and how much is due to reason. But I am virtually certain that none of it is due to God.

I want to live in a world where people are treated fairly and in which, were I  disadvantaged, people would try to help me. For it is only an accident of biology and history that has made me better off than others. I want to live in a world where people promote the well-being of our fellows. That is what I see as "moral” behavior. This kind of morality is justified by its results, but one thing it is not is circular. (Indeed, it is Douthat’s morality that is circular, for it ultimately rests on what he thinks God wants, and unless Douthat can further justify why God wants such behavior, that’s the end of the road.) Like all nonreligious brands of morality, mine comes down to a justified preference: a judgment call.

But it's better to make a judgment call based on science, observation, and reason than on the dictates of an imaginary being. We are evolved social animals who have been bequeathed big brains by natural selection, and we can reason about what kind of society we want. The answer to why we should be altruistic or compassionate is not "because it's egalitarian," but because it makes for a better and more harmonious world. And, at any rate, Douthat’s answering "Why be altruistic?" with "Because God wants it” is, to any thinking person, a blatant evasion.

As for "stability and order" being the greatest goods, I don’t accept that and never have. We now realize that if one buys such stability at the cost of disenfranchising groups of people for no good reason, it creates a society in which the disorder remains, but is hidden and suppressed. The instability, disorder, and dysfunctionality persist in the disenfranchised, reducing society’s well-being. Finally, not all evolved "moral intuitions" are useful in today's world, for we no longer live in the small social groups that dominated more than 99% of our evolutionary history. Xenophobia, for instance, may be one such vestigial behavior.

3. I'm too confident about the ultimate victory of secular reason.


Finally, I enjoyed Coyne’s parting sally:

"Douthat is wrong. The cracks are not in the edifice of secularism, but in the temples of faith. As he should know if he reads his own newspaper, secularism is not cracking up but growing in the U.S. He and his fellow religionists are on the way out, and his columns are his swan song. It may take years, but one fine day our grandchildren will look back on people like Douthat, shake their heads, and wonder why some people couldn’t put away their childish things." [ITALICS ADDED]

For a man who believes in “a physical and purposeless universe” with no room for teleology, Coyne seems remarkably confident about what direction human history is going in, and where it will end up. For my part, I don’t make any pretense to know what ideas will be au courant a hundred years from now, and as I said in the column, I think there are all kinds of worldviews that could gain ground—at the expense of my own Catholicism and secular materialism alike. (Right now, the territory around pantheism and panpsychism seems ripe for further population, but that’s just a guess.) But I suppose it’s a testament to my own childish faith in the “neuronal illusion” that is the human intellect that I can’t imagine a permanent intellectual victory for a worldview as ill-served by its popularizers as atheism is by Jerry Coyne.

Of course Douthat doesn't really conceive of his faith as childish, as he’s apparently proud of it. If that’s the case, then by all means let him give us the reasons for his belief, and tell us why he's so sure that his Catholicism is the "right" religion rather than, say, Islam. For, if he's chosen wrong there, he'll face an eternity of fire.

All I know is what I see and what I discern from history and the patterns so thoroughly documented in Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature.  What I see is a trend in human behavior that, while not completely smooth, arcs toward an appreciation for the sufferings of others, whether those others be women, gays, minorities, children, or animals. And religion, which has often opposed this trend, is clearly on the wane. It was unthinkable to not be religious in sixteenth-century Europe, but in many parts of Europe belief in God is now a minority view. It is hard to imagine that, at least in Western countries, we will ever see the return of child labor, institutionalized slavery, or public torture. It’s equally hard to imagine that Douthat's Catholic Church could, as it once did, put heretics on the rack. Or does he think that a new Inquisition is just as likely as the demise of Catholicism?

Of course it will take many decades to dispel the delusion of gods, but I remain optimistic that the lack of evidence for divinity will ultimately overcome wishful thinking. "Pantheism" is often just another word for "atheism," and panpsychism—the view that mind permeates the universe—seems silly, even if it's touted by Thomas Nagel. 

In the end, Douthat, like many, is simply uncomfortable with a materialist worldview, and wants desperately for there to be More Than That. He yearns for a teleological or divine force that, he thinks, will give our lives real purpose and meaning, and ground human morality. But doesn’t the lack of evidence for such a force disturb him a bit? If it doesn't, he's not thinking.