Varieties of atheism

Brandon points out the problem with lumping all contemporary atheist thinkers together as “new atheists.” He highlights the work of philosopher Owen Flanagan, whose work I’m not particularly familiar with, as an atheist who doesn’t necessarily fit the new atheist paradigm.

It sounds to me–at least from Brandon’s description–that Flanagan is what I would call a non-reductive atheist. That is, anyone who’s willing to countenance a “naturalized spirituality” isn’t likely to have much sympathy with the view that all things that exist can be explained by reducing them to their most basic elements (genes or fundamental physical particles, depending on what science you want to use as your master-discourse). I’ve often thought it strange that people who consider themselves “humanists” could be comfortable with the reductionist perspective characteristic of some of the “new” atheists.

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15 thoughts on “Varieties of atheism

  1. Everybody thinks there are some things that can’t be reduced to other things.

    Differences concern only what’s on the list of non-reducible, basic bits.

    Sense-data?

    Whatever the physicists say there is?

    Properties and propositions?

    To claim that chairs and trees are really nothing but assemblages of smaller bits in course of a variety of chemical reactions does not mean there are no trees and there’s no place to sit.

    Why is that a problem?

    And I don’t actually see the connection, real or alleged, between that and “naturalized spirituality”?

    What is that, anyway?

    That Flanagan self-description (quoted by Brandon) as “broadly Budddhist” sound pretty New Age to me, and that certainly is a ways from the outlook of the New Atheists.

    Did you look at the Midgley piece?

    And calling belief in God a worldview (it is certainly a piece of the worldviews of many people) clarified nothing at issue in her little squib.

    And while Midgely is right about the early Christian fathers not being literalists about Genesis, they and the Church after them at least through the Middle Ages were pretty insistent on a real creation of the world in time and not very long ago.

    God walked in the garden?

    Nah.

    God created the world ex nihilo a few thousand years ago?

    You bet.

    Midgley is simply dishonest in using this already dishonest claim of no conflict between the traditional Christain view of creation and the scientific view on the history of the universe to create to totally false impression that there isn’t and never has been a conflict between religion and science.

    Her politics lesson casting fundamentalism as an ideological riposte of the poor and downtrodden to the materialism of the elites is absurd.

  2. Sorry about the comment trouble–I was playing around with templates and hadn’t looked at the comments feature yet.

    I didn’t look at the Midgley piece yet – but, in principle, I do think creation ex nihilo can be reconciled with scientific cosmology (the “a few thousand years ago” is hardly essential). I can’t comment yet on her other claims (or insinuations) about science vs. religion, but from the way you describe them I probably wouldn’t agree entirely with what she says. I might take a look at the piece later if I have time.

    On reductionism, my point–which I freely admit I didn’t expand on–is that if everything distinctly human–art, culture, science, religion, politics–can be explained in terms of the laws of evolution (or elementary-particle physics), then “humanism” seems to be a pointless endeavor. After all, if the sphere of the distinctly human is just one more manifestation of the purposeless void, why confer any special value upon it?

    What I imagine “naturalized spirituality” to be (and, again, not knowing what Flanagan means by it, this is just speculation) is a view according to which there can be a “spiritual” life or “spiritual” values even if naturalism is true. That is, even though they’re part of nature, spiritual (and moral, aesthetic, etc.) values constitute a semi-autonomous realm with standards and laws of their own. I do think this is a different outlook from that of the new atheists (at least of the Dawkins/Dennett variety), which I take it was Brandon’s point.

    I mean, I’m not an atheist, but I at least find the idea of a non-reductive naturalism coherent and somewhat appealing.

  3. “On reductionism, my point–which I freely admit I didn’t expand on–is that if everything distinctly human–art, culture, science, religion, politics–can be explained in terms of the laws of evolution (or elementary-particle physics), then “humanism” seems to be a pointless endeavor. After all, if the sphere of the distinctly human is just one more manifestation of the purposeless void, why confer any special value upon it?”

    You value things or you don’t.

    Would you value the Moonlight Sonata less if you became convinced physicalism (or phenomenalism, or subjective idealism, etc.) is true?

    Would you love your familiy less?

  4. Well, if “humanism” is just the view that humans value humans more than other things — as a brute fact — then okay. But I think humanists usually want it to be something stronger than that, don’t they? (Or maybe I’m wrong?)

  5. I suppose we can say we ought to.

    But on my own understanding of value-talk that would only be a reflection of my own values, anyway.

    I don’t see off hand how naturalistic or non-cognitivist meta-ethical views would, in general, be endangered by any particular variant of reductionism.

    Outright, intuitionist objectivism would be challenged only by the denial of the objective reality of the requisite moral properties.

    Do you suppose most, or many, humanists are into that sort of thing?

    And nothing is challenged by atheism per se but stuff like theological voluntarism.

    Is that a concern?

  6. I mean, of course, that the truth or otherwise of value claims, understood according to those meta-ethical views, does not seem to depend logically on whether some variant of reductionism is true.

  7. Well, sure, if you’re a non-cognitivist about ethics, then I suppose your first-order value-judgments are immune from any threat posed by reductionism, or anything else since there not statements capable of being true or false, right?

    But humanists–at least the ones I’m familiar with–say that we *ought* to prefer science, rationality, etc. to the false blandishments of religion. And my impression is that they mean this in some stronger, “realist” sense. Certainly Dawkins, et al. talk like this. (Don’t they?)

  8. You seem to think just making “ought” judgments implies some sort of moral realism.

    Not true, at all.

    And many forms of naturalism in metaethics would be immune to reductionism.

    I suspect what’s bugging you is the idea that if some variant of physicalism were true then YOU would think of humans, so understood, as less distinctly and specially valuable.

    Maybe you would.

    But (a) maybe not and (b) if so, why?

  9. Certainly one can make ought-judgments while denying moral realism; the question, though, remains what makes those judgments true or false (or appropriate or inappropriate)?

    But, anway, that wasn’t my main point. My point was that, if reductionism is true (e.g., if human beings are just vehicles for the replication of “selfish genes”), then why make such a big fuss about humanity? Like, why should each human being be thought to have “inherent worth and dignity” as the “Humanist Manifesto” says? (http://www.americanhumanist.org/who_we_are/about_humanism/Humanist_Manifesto_III) Or why should human culture–arts, sciences, etc.–be seen as anything more than interesting adaptive strategies?

  10. I should add that I think it’s possible–well, at least it might be possible–to be a non-reductive atheist/naturalist. That’s the position I think a “humanist” should want to take–that human culture, science, art, etc. “evolve” according to their own internal logic and standards, and aren’t simply outworkings of the underlying biological imperative.

  11. “My point was that, if reductionism is true (e.g., if human beings are just vehicles for the replication of “selfish genes”), then why make such a big fuss about humanity? Like, why should each human being be thought to have “inherent worth and dignity” as the “Humanist Manifesto” says? ”

    So this is right, then.

    (And I’ll drop this, now, I promise.)

    “I suspect what’s bugging you is the idea that if some variant of physicalism were true then YOU would think of humans, so understood, as less distinctly and specially valuable.”

  12. Well, let’s be careful of our terms. “Physicalism” can mean a lot of things. There are versions of non-reductive physicalism that I wouldn’t necessarily oppose.

    But my main beef with reductionism–as I understand it–isn’t that it deprives human beings of their “specialness”; it’s that I think it’s philosophically inadequate because it tries to force all our experience into a Procrustean bed of monocausal explanation.

  13. Oh, but you wrote,

    “My point was that, if reductionism is true (e.g., if human beings are just vehicles for the replication of ‘selfish genes’), then why make such a big fuss about humanity?

    “Like, why should each human being be thought to have ‘inherent worth and dignity’ as the ‘Humanist Manifesto’ says?”

    So it looks like some sort of loss of specialness is exactly your main beef.

    And on that point I think a great many people would agree with you.

    And contrary to my earlier supposition, I think after all that this objection is not to be interpreted as one having directly to do with meta-ethics or the theory of value, but as simply an assertion of an ordinary, first-order value judgment.

    Understood in that way, it seems to me that whether or not the vindication of some version of physicalism undermines our ideas of human dignity (to stick with just that) depends on just why we entertained those favorable value-judgments, in the first place.

    Was our thought that humans have a special dignity a deduction from the premises (1) that beings with an immaterial, rational soul have such dignity and (2) humans are such beings?

    If so, and if we stick to (1) but now deduce from physicalism that (2) is false, we will find ourselves in want of support for our previous conviction of the dignity of man.

    On the other hand, it seems to me unlikely that this would be the real, lasting outcome of such a metaphysical change of heart.

    I think, in the not very long run, we would find that we still specially prize humans.

    On the other hand, was our thought that humans have a special moral worth and dignity a deduction from the premises (1) that rational animals have such dignity and (2) humans are rational animals?

    Then I see nothing in physicalism that endangers either premise.

    And I think this is a better account, in fact, of our own evaluation of ourselves.

  14. Actually, I was identifying it as a problem for humanists (of which I’m not one). And I was specifically talking about reductionism, not physicalism. (And by reductionism I mean the view that all apparently “higher” levels of reality can be exhaustively described in terms that apply only to the “lower” ones. Or that what’s “really real” is the stuff at the “lower” level.)

    So, to put it more schematically, my argument was this:

    1. Humanists think human beings are special qua human.

    2. Reductionism entails that human beings aren’t special qua human. This is because the apparently distinctive human traits are merely expressions (epiphenomena?) of underlying (biological, chemical, physical or whatever) facts.

    Therefore, humanists, if they want to remain humanists, should reject reductionism.

    Now what I personally think we should do is reject both reductionism and humanism. The former because it’s epistemologically and metaphysically inadequate, the latter because it’s inconsistent with the observed facts (such as our close kinship with other animals).

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