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Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Morality of Richard Dawkins

I have read In Defence of the Soul, by Keith Ward. He argues that a completely materialistic view of life makes no sense, and points out that some of those who have argued for such a view are inconsistent:
When the destroyers of the soul have done their work, they usually turn back from the moral consequences of their theories, and end with a rather lame and totally unconvincing attempt to reinstate a modified version of traditional morality. We have seen this in Jacques Monod, in Erich Fromm and Karl Marx in slightly different ways. A particularly clear example can be found on the last page of Richard Dawkins' very entertaining book, The Selfish Gene. Having argued for 214 pages that human life is totally governed by the genes, 'unconscious, blind, replicators', he now says, in the last sentence or two, 'It is possible that yet another unique quality of man is a capacity for genuine disinterested, true altruism. I hope so, but I am not going to argue the case one way or another . . .' This is suitably tentative, but his last sentence reads: 'We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.'* The questions this raises are obvious. How can rational, responsible, altruistic, purposive, conscious conduct be accounted for on such a materialist theory? Why should he hope that altruism is possible, unless he really does have a basic sense of moral obligation? And isn't it odd to see morality as a rebellion against our true natures, instead of as a fulfilment of their potentialities? Keith Ward, In Defence of the Soul. Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications, 1998. p. 161.
*cites Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 1976) p. 215.

Thanks for reading.


George said...

Brilliant observations. I particularly like the observation in the last sentence. Dawkins' conclusions foster a viewpoint on life that is too fatalistic. Can there be no natural redeeming qualities of mankind? I think there are, and I think it's worth the time to argue for...

Martin LaBar said...

Right, George. According to Dawkins, most of the time, there's no meaning to be found in the universe, which is not how we really are made to live.


B Nettles said...

Thanks for the post. I find it interesting that the President of Yale, Richard Levin, invoked the soul in describing what happened in the Annie Le murder. He says: This incident could have happened in any city, in any university, or in any workplace. It says more about the dark side of the human soul than it does about the extent of security measures.

Too bad he doesn't go on to explain the solution for such darkness. And for president of Yale to acknowledge the existence of the human soul is interesting.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, B. Nettles.

I read that, too. I'm not sure what he meant by "soul," though.

billy chuck said...

"How can rational, responsible, altruistic, purposive, conscious conduct be accounted for on such a materialist theory?"

by the principles of emergent phenomena, of which consciousness and the behavior of human social groups are but a subset. 'tis better to deliberately choose a moral foundation for social behavior on a verifiable understanding of how the world works (what you disdain as materialistic) instead of fables co-opted from illiterate men in the Middle East dozens of centuries ago. no?

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for your comment, billy chuck.

If there is a real explanation of how "the principles of emergent phenomena" (whatever they are) are responsible for consciousness, I've not seen it. It is possible that consciousness is, indeed, an emergent phenomenon, but that seems to me to, at least at present, be an article of faith, rather than a proven fact

It is also possible that a supernatural creator constructed the universe in such a way that consciousness did eventually emerge.