Saturday, January 27, 2007

Steven Pinker on Consciousness (and Morality)

It seems like I've been seeing a lot of atheists defending the possibility of morality from their point of view. Sam Harris, for instance, advocates an atheistic basis for morality in an article about "10 Myths/Truths About Athesim" which I came across on this message board. I am more interested, however, in some comments made by Steven Pinker in his TIME article called "The Mystery of Consciousness". Pinker says this:
MY OWN VIEW IS THAT THIS IS backward: the biology of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the unprovable dogma of an immortal soul. It's not just that an understanding of the physiology of consciousness will reduce human suffering through new treatments for pain and depression. That understanding can also force us to recognize the interests of other beings--the core of morality.

He goes on to explain that the fact that we have all the same cognitive equipment (cerebral cortex, hypothalamus, etc.) that we will recognize that we are all human and should treat each other with respect. But how does it follow that because we have the same equipment we should recognize the interests of others? Note the word should in that question. I do not see how a biological fact could establish that we should do one thing or another. This is the failing I have seen in most atheistic attempts to establish morality. There are propositions they assume that need proof.

Pinker's argument in the article seems to go thusly:
  1. If we all have the same cognitive equipment we should behave morally.
  2. We all have the same cognitive equipment.
  3. Therefore we should behave morally.

This follows deductively if we agree with the propositions, but I disagree with proposition one. It needs the support of a good argument, which Pinker does not provide. I don't understand why so many atheists ignore the gargantuan chasm between biology and morality, but ignore it they do. They have yet to prove that atheism can provide a solid basis for moral behavior.


Javajoe said...

The phrase "We all have a cerebral cortex, therefore we should consider others" goes together like Hi C and turkey.

Joshua Duncan said...

'Zactly! Pass the Dr. Pepper and trout!

Joe Fincham said...

I'm surprised you didn't go into Wittgenstein's critique of propositions (in his later work, of course).

Joshua Duncan said...

Man, I can't remember that stuff anymore. I need to break out the philosopy books this summer. By the way, what's your plan after graduation?

James Reynolds said...

Please 'prove' the obvious link between theological facts and morality. Why is it the default in the absence of a hard and fast 'proof' of the link between biological facts and morality? What kind of 'proof' are you looking for here...something akin to a geometric proof? Harris' claim was that a deeper understanding of the cognitive similarities between us all will engender traditional morality (e.g. respect for others, love for life, and so on) through what it SHOWS us. Whether he ends up being right or wrong, I see nothing there but an optimistic contingent claim about human psychology. I do not see any metaphysical absolutes.

Of course you must admit that such things - new ways of looking, deeper understandings - can contingently affect our behaviour. Why do we need some logical or rational basis for morality again? Is that really what morality is about?

Phil Steiger said...

Wonderful thoughts, and thanks for the link to the TIME article. I have the same reaction to an atheist's insistance that biology alone can ground morality. Like a recent article in First Things noted, we simply do not hold genes responsible. No matter how complex or how interestingly arranged, genes and chemicals are not morally responsible the same way human souls are.

Michael Dewalt said...

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