Secular stilts

It did not take the Hitchens-Dawkins suggestion that the Pope should be clapped in irons on his arrival in Britain to remind us that the secular humanist contingent should be treated as a group of eccentrics whom we should welcome as adding to the general variety of life. Their intellectual basis is, as Jeremy Bentham said in another context, such “nonsense on stilts”that we would assume that they were indulging in some arch sport were it not for their evident earnestness.

In any dialogue I like to open up with the suggestion that they have no sense of morality. This of course is a feint: they tend to have a very strong sense of morality – which they use fulsomely to praise their own virtues and to condemn the vices introduced by religion. So the next question is to ask them to explain the basis of their moral sense. Naturally they have a ready answer: evolution.

This approach takes the general form that human beings, like a number of lower species, can only prosper through a willingness to co-operate. While the basis is to ensure the survival of genes in the close and extended family it also applies in a general way to our whole community. And the rivalry between competing communities (war) is a negative support for this whole concept of evolved altruism.

The argument is attractive if only because we have good reason to judge it to be broadly true. Its only drawback is that is does not address the question of moral sense. To behave “virtuously” at the behest of our evolved genes is no more a matter of morality than any other genetic effect. If it so happens that I have inherited a gene which leads me to slaughter everyone with red hair, I can hardly be blamed for that. And the same can be said for other influences – perhaps poor upbringing or peer pressure – which I have received. While a myriad of external factors may contribute causally to my behaviour (and does), these cannot be the whole story if it is to explain moral sense.

An extension of this thinking is often proposed as the reason for the evolution of religion. Historically and currently (see Northern Ireland) religion has identified the group to which we owe altruism versus the groups we are right to oppose. But, at least as importantly, religion is a way of codifying societal values and enforcing them with sanctions which transcend the secular.

But recent work (Pyysiainen and Hauser, Cell Press 2010, February 9) suggests that “we evolved moral intuitions about norm-consistent, and inconsistent actions, and thus, intuitive judgments of right and wrong”. Religion would then be a by-product of this, enabling codifying and enforcement. Since Catholics have always held that the sense that the good ought to be done and the evil avoided is natural to rational man, who also possesses a native ability to recognise the fundamental content of morality (natural law), this does not come as a surprise.

The concept of a “moral intuition”, or as it is put elsewhere “pre-existing cognitive function”, has no useful meaning. So, in the interests of charity, we must offer what help we can. And to do so we must work in terms to which the scientific mind can relate.

My starting assumption is that we all share a moral sense, and so are able to approve or disapprove of actions either of ours or of others. Those who do not claim this are not our concern. (It would save confusion if, having denied its existence, they dropped any claim to moral judgment.)

We must then ask what characteristics would be necessary provide a rational basis for moral sense. In this I follow, as an example, a subatomic physicist whose equation tells him that a hitherto unknown particle is required. His first task is to designate what characteristics it must have to solve the equation.

In the case of moral judgment the first requirement is freedom of will. Without freedom, approval or otherwise is otiose. This does not mean that we are not strongly influenced, and in some cases psychologically compelled, to choose a course of action but that we are in at least some cases free to make a choice, and therefore to take responsibility. Freedom is a difficult concept for the scientific secularist because it denotes uncaused activity; and science has no interstice to fit that.

And if there is a choice there must be a chooser. While this might seem obvious, many senior neurologists hold the view that we have just a biological brain, with a corresponding body, and nothing more. The term “self” is just a convenient way of expressing how our wholly natural brains think. It is not quite clear to me who or what it is which is able to make a judgment that there is no self, since there is presumably no self to do so. But we can safely leave our humanist friends to explain that.

The remaining characteristic is the provision of a reason why we should follow our sense of moral obligation in those cases when to do so is clearly against our own interests. Since this cannot be wholly caused, directly or indirectly, without losing the character of being moral, our recognition of the good, and our obligation to follow it, must originate from outside ourselves.

While a further analysis would lead one towards the concept of love and a transcendent God whose nature is goodness, it is usually enough to leave the secular humanist with the simple realisation that his fundamental position contains an inherent contradiction. His claimed devotion to truth should lead him towards revision. But don’t hold your breath.


About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Secular stilts

  1. tim says:


  2. Horace says:

    We recently had a discussion of “Truth and rhetoric” and surely this post is a brilliant example of rhetoric.

    However a small point:-
    “Without freedom [of will], approval or otherwise is otiose.” (Although I could guess what the last word meant I had to look it up in a dictionary to be sure!)

    I would submit that ‘free will’ – which at first thought seems obvious – is a very difficult concept for anyone, not just the scientific secularist. The latter may take refuge in the counterfactuals of quantum theory (Schrodinger’s cat etc), while for the religious because God surely knows what must happen when a choice is made by an individual’s ‘free will’, we have notions like predestination.

  3. Ion Zone says:

    “It did not take the Hitchens-Dawkins suggestion that the Pope should be clapped in irons on his arrival in Britain to remind us that the secular humanist contingent should be treated as a group of eccentrics whom we should welcome as adding to the general variety of life.”

    Quentin, you are too nice!

    I have referred to this incident as them opening a huge window on their personal fantasies. That Hitchens is cuddling up for the ride tells as much on its own. Hitchens is the worst kind of journalist; the kind who thinks he possesses a God-like intellect, but seems instead to be an idiot suffering from the Rage virus!

    “I like to open up with the suggestion that they have no sense of morality”

    It’s an undefinable parasite morality that bases itself on Christianity and defines itself by its inversions. That it ‘evolves’ and ‘is not fixed’ is as good as saying that they have no mortality. Mortality changes over time, yes, but that is very different from a morality you ignore when it suits you. They often confuse morality with other things and seem not to know the exact meaning of the word.

    “and to condemn the vices introduced by religion”

    Don’t forget blaming their own crimes on ‘Religious thinking’!

    “Naturally they have a ready answer: evolution.”

    This is a symptom of something I have noticed. Philosophers think philosophers should run the world. Scientists think scientists should run the world. Atheists think Atheists should run the world. And Biologists think EVERYTHING can be explained in biological terms (Same is true of the others).

    Hence the rather useless fad that is memes! 😛

    “is a negative support for this whole concept of evolved altruism.”

    I often find myself telling them that you can’t have a ‘selfish gene’ AND natural morality (which is very different to altruism).

    “An extension of this thinking is often proposed as the reason for the evolution of religion.”

    They love this idea, but the truth is that if we are placed in a religious vacuum, what is created is superstition and cults, which is not the same thing as a complex religion. It results in fireside stories that evolve freely (See the Norse gods) The gods created inevitably have human features, and are mearly superhuman.

    The instinct we have is to worship *ourselves* as gods, something atheists forever fall into, along with secular culture (Atheist leaders usually demand worship). This is our urge to replace God.

    This cannot explain complex religions that appear all at once in the form of multiple witness statements (not stories), such as the Koran or New Testament, which are as historically verifiable as any other text of the time (i.e. not much, but we can still find most of the cities and there are a few records left, etc). There are no fantasy monsters or kingdoms in the New Testament, it isn’t a story, it’s an account.

    It’s truth is another matter, but *wanting* it not to be true is wishful thinking.

    “The remaining characteristic is the provision of a reason why we should follow our sense of moral obligation in those cases when to do so is clearly against our own interests.”

    This is not just an inherent problem with atheism, it’s one many atheist relish, proposing a hedonistic morality of ‘least harm’, which has the obvious flaw of being mind-blowingly stupid. Yet several atheist professors endorse it (that French asshole who wants to start total world chaos is one).

    The thing is, this is morality for the masses. There is no reason whatsoever to be an unselfish atheist, by which I mean, morally is optional. History has given them something like fifty two chances at creating a moral utopia. What have they done? Created fifty-two oppressive regimes that sought to annihilate religion. What will they do if given a fifty-third chance?

    “some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them,”
    -Sam Harris in one of his books.

  4. Ion Zone says:

    Have a look at Vox Day’s book, The Irrational Atheist. Not very PC at the start, and could be much better edited, but he never has any pretensions of grandeur whatsoever (unlike Hitchens). And if you compare his book to theirs, he is incredibly gentle and well researched.

    I have encountered some who think him obsessive over these people, but as he explains, they are after us and won’t leave alone. One book is not obsessive, they are obsessive, they are devout to their cause and will use any means at all, regardless of intellectual or moral honesty (or just plain honesty).

    Vox Day also has a blog

  5. st.joseph says:

    I dont have much to say on this subject, (not too clever on big words) but however reading through the comments and Ion Zone’s post

    I was quite shocked when Candid Candidos first post suddenly came into my mind and reminded me of that!

    I am not accusing him of desecrating the Blessed Sacrament, but this strange feeling came over me and I wonder why!

  6. James H. says:

    The insistence that there is a physical basis for mind, morality, religion and reason is beautifully parodied by John Cleese (of all people!) here:

  7. Ion Zone says:

    If it’s 0k with Quentin, I’d love to hear more about debating these people. I recently read Apendix B for The Irrational Atheist, and the classical debate he describes reminded me strongly of the dishonest way they attack religion.

  8. Ion, it’s very OK with me. I’d love to hear further arguments, and about any experiences people have had in such argument. Anyone who has run into difficulties is more than welcome to ask for help from others.
    And I daresay that Advocatus Diaboli can be persuaded to come out from under his shell from time to time — just to annoy.

  9. Ion Zone says:

    That would be great!

    While I have no problem with them holding their beliefs, I often, very often, find that they take *huge* exception to any belief that is contrary to their own. There seem to be very few who are exceptions to this. It can take a long time to change these embittered views, but only today I saw one cation someone thus:

    “…we’re probably into the realms of religion and since peoples genuinely held beliefs are involved I shan’t comment further.”

    Which is a big improvement. However there are plenty for whom a belief is something to be trampled with glee (Most cannot acknowledge that THEY have beliefs in themselves, and are utterly outraged and infuriated by the idea).

    Not just that, but they cannot see that our beliefs are equally valid. They seethe with hatred (perhaps deflected anger?). They cannot see that hating all religion is an utterly and completly intolerant. They call scorn on anyone who shows any kind of respect. It even leaks out in the papers and leading scientific magazines. New Scientist, for example, has let through some utterly vicious and poisonus opinions. see the last paragraph of this for what is probably the mildist. This was in the editorial on the first page.

    Most cannot claim even the tinyest bit of responcibility and behave with compleate disregard for the logic and reason they, aparently, hold dear. It is not a rational act to blame the comunist purges on religion, that’s blaming the victim.

    If anyone wants, I’m putting together a section on my blog which is aimed at taking apart their arguments on every level. I’m not fantastic at writing this way, so I would apreciate all critacism. It covers some subjects you may find strange, but I don’t think I’ve let in much that isn’t worthwile (opinions to the contry are welcomed!) Only two so far, but more on the way.

  10. Ion Zone says:

    Just so you know (news from the internet front line) the Pope’s visit is not going to go without a hitch. I would not be surprised by protests, massive smear campaigns, internet wars, or attempts to assault the Pope and disrupt his visit. You have been warned!

  11. Horace says:

    Some more comments on points raised at the end of Quentin’s post:-
    “And if there is a choice there must be a chooser . . many senior neurologists hold the view that we have just a biological brain . . . The term ‘self’ is just a convenient way of expressing how our wholly natural brains think.
    It is not quite clear to me who or what it is which is able to make a judgment that there is no self, since there is presumably no self to do so.”

    This confuses me considerably (presumably it is intended similarly to confuse the secular humanist contingent at whom it is addressed).

    Remember that consciousness, the self (or soul) and the idea of ‘free will’ are inextricably linked.

    Consider a different viewpoint:-
    “If the mind is something quite external to the physical body it is hard to see why so many of its attributes can be very closely associated with properties of a physical brain.” (Roger Penrose, ‘Shadows of the Mind’)

    A further quote from the same book which, to me, summarises the general argument:-
    ” . . with fixed synaptic connections the brain is indeed acting as some kind of computer. . . it is exceedingly improbable that such a scheme could ever provide a model for human conscious understanding.
    On the other hand if the specific synaptic connections that define the particular neural computer under consideration are subject to continual change, where the control of those changes is governed by some non-computational action, then it remains possible that such an extended model could indeed simulate the behaviour of a conscious brain.”

    To understand what Penrose means by “some non-computational action” I am afraid that you will have to read the book – it is much too complex to summarise here.

  12. Horace, you may find it interesting to listen to the Melvyn Bragg-conducted conversation on Neuroscience at About 40 minutes worth.
    I hardly dare pit myself against such erudition but I cannot help mentioning my blog posting Mind over Matter (18 Dec 2008)

  13. Horace says:

    I have listened to the Melvyn Bragg-conducted conversation on Neuroscience as you suggested. Clearly they regard the notion of a non-material entity being involved in consciousness as irrelevant or unnecessary. Otherwise though there is nothing very new.

    I remember well your blog posting “Mind over Matter” which covers most of the territory in the Melvyn Bragg program. The discussion at that time was mainly about consciousness and free will. RBlaber stated “A dead body is a body vacated by a mind, or soul” whereas my approach was the inverse – “when the brain is dead the person is dead” ( incidentally a view supported by the Working Group of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences – although there is still some controversy).

    My reason for quoting Penrose (although he is an Oxford mathematician rather than a neurologist) was that I felt that your paragraph was overly dismissive (if superbly rhetorical) and that the extracts from ‘Shadows of the Mind’ reflect an intelligent, authoritative but respectful attitude to the dialog between science and religion.

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