The Season for Reason
by Ari Armstrong, December 12, 2005
"Merry Christmas," one of my atheist friends warmly wished.
Another of my atheist friends points out that December 25 also commemorates the birth of Isaac Newton, perhaps the greatest scientific genius of all time. Now, it seems, Newton was actually born on January 4, 1643, not December 25, 1642. But December 25 is not the actual birth date of Jesus, either; it is instead based on a season of pagan celebration. So I suppose "Merry Mithras Day" would also fit. Even as the Christians stole the holiday from pagan idolators, so non-Christians adapt Christmas to their their own beliefs and values.
For me, Christmas is a time to celebrate friends and family and to appreciate the productiveness that allows us to exchange gifts, stay toasty warm while it's snowing outside, eat lots of great food, and enjoy the dazzling electric lights. So Merry Christmas, Mr. Edison.
Productivity, of course, is the application of reason to the creation of human values. As Ayn Rand writes,
Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses... Man must choose his actions, values and goals by the standard of that which is proper to man -- in order to achieve, maintain, fulfill and enjoy that ultimate value, that end in itself, which is his own life... Productive work is the central purpose of a rational man's life, the central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values. Reason is the source, the precondition of his productive work -- pride is the result... The virtue of Productiveness is the recognition of the fact that productive work is the process by which man's mind sustains his life... Productive work is the road of man's unlimited achievement and calls upon the highest attributes of his character: his creative ability, his ambitiousness, his self-assertiveness, his refusal to bear uncontested disasters, his dedication to the goal of reshaping the earth in the image of his values. (Virtue of Selfishness, pages 20, 25, and 26)
This view of reason entails a constellation of ideas and values. People have free will -- the ability to think rationally, or not, and the ability to build their moral character, or not. Consciousness is real and open to introspection. The mind is capable of integrating the information of the senses to understand reality. By applying the mind to physical labor, people are able manipulate reality according to natural laws. Moral principles are required to uphold the supreme value of human life. This view, the Objectivist view as Rand described it, holds that there is an objective reality that people can perceive and understand, this is the only reality, and living successfully in this reality requires an objective morality. (Craig Biddle discusses the ethics of this view in his book, Loving Life.)
The Objectivist view faces two main competitors: the religious view and the subjectivist view. (My discussion of this point is based loosely on Leonard Peikoff's discussion of DIM -- disintegration, integration, misintegration -- though of course Peikoff has much greater mastery of the subject than I do and so any shortcoming on my part should not be attributed to him. Peikoff and other Objectivists also discuss this issue elsewhere. By the way, Peikoff's "Christmas Should be More Commercial" is a classic.)
The religious view holds that there is some supernatural realm that is the basis of "true" knowledge and morality. Religion holds that we can know about this super-reality only through some direct connection to the divine. We can know about "real" reality only through some ineffable means of knowledge, not grounded in the physical senses. Religion counsels us, not to rely solely on reason to integrate and understand the information about the natural world available to us through the senses, but to seek some "higher" understanding based on the other world. Morality comes from this supernatural world. For Christianity, morality consists of obeying the will of God, which we know through faith.
The religious view holds that the supernatural world is perfect and eternal, while this world -- the world of the senses -- is ephemeral and imperfect, a mere shadow of the supernatural world. Religion follows the pattern established by Plato: there is a perfect world of forms, and our imperfect world of mere matter. The Dark Age was the era of Christianity, for the entire point was to prepare the soul for the next world, not live successfully in this one. Priests mortified their flesh and tortured and burned to death heretics, scientists, and nature-worshipers. The goal of morality is not to increase human knowledge of the natural world, bring technological advances, and make life on earth safer and more comfortable, but instead to bring the will of man into conformity with the will of God. The soul is not something of this world, and its eternal state is put at risk by the weaknesses of the flesh.
Of course, America's "Sunday Christians" have little in common with the Christians of centuries past, as moderns spend most of their time engaged in productive work and enjoying themselves in the world of science, technology, and this-worldly reason. As Peikoff notes, one of the great restorers of Aristotelianism was Aquinas. So it is possible for Christians to mix significant elements of reason and this-worldly morality with their fundamentally faith-based, other-worldly system.
Unfortunately, many of those who react against religion take from religion the view of this world as imperfect and unknowable. Religion holds that knowledge is tied to the supernatural realm; the skeptics reject supernaturalism along with objective knowledge. Knowledge becomes the province of competing social claims. Religion regards consciousness as supernatural; the skeptics agree but then reject the supernatural and consciousness along with it. Religion regards the flesh as weak and the senses as inherently flawed; the skeptics agree but claim that such is life. Religion regards morality as as the province of the divine; the skeptics agree and then deny the existence of the divine. And so they claim that morality is merely the realm of personal preference, or the whims of society, or might makes right.
So the choices presented to us by religion and skepticism are between divine knowledge and no knowledge, between faith and relativism, and between God's commands and human whims.
Obviously, the Objectivist view rejects all such "choices" as false alternatives.
Recently I criticized Richard Ebeling's argument that liberty is based on Christianity. Mike Jennison replied and offered a perfect picture of the "debate" between religion and skepticism: "[O]ur understanding of reality is flawed (we do not and cannot know everything) and our reasoning faculties are flawed as well (again, there is no perfect knowledge). So mankind uses a flawed knowledge of reality and less-than-perfect reasoning faculties to construct a document that lays out the basis for society... [W]hat happens when we err? ... [I]t could be... collectivism in which the individual means much less than the whole... Isn't there room for an acknowledgment on your part that man is less than perfect and needs to recognize a higher power to keep him in line? ... You say that God, in fact, does not exist. I may not be able to prove that He exists but I've yet to hear a credible argument that explains the Big Bang. You have your beliefs and I have mine."
So, according to Jennison, either a "higher power" gives us truth and keeps us in line morally, or we degenerate into skepticism and the whims of the collective.
The advocates of religion use as their foil the skepticism, subjectivism, collectivism, and nihilism of their "opponents." Without God, anything goes. Just look at the murderous atheistic regimes of Stalin and Mao. Look at the drug addicts and the mindless thrill seekers. And the skeptics use as their foil the irrationality, zealotry, and destructiveness of religion. Just look at the centuries of war among religions. Look at the torture, murder, and oppression committed in the name of Jesus. Look at the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Both sides are mostly correct about the flaws of their opponents. Yet each side points to the other and says, "Look at the evils of our antagonists! You don't want to be like that, so join us!"
So long as you consider only the false alternatives of religion and skepticism, you're stuck. The real answer is to reject both religion and skepticism and recognize that we can understand the real world and learn objective moral principles that advance our lives.
Yet too many people remain stuck in the false debate. Too many people accept either the religious or the skeptical viewpoint because the "other side" is just so terrible.
Wayne Laugesen writes for the December 8 Boulder Weekly: "Thank God for American Jews who understand the dangers of imposed secularism -- the religion of Nazis, communists and all other state-centered totalitarian regimes throughout time. They understand that tyranny -- statist or religious -- requires the oppression and elimination of Judeo-Christian values and traditions, which place God and liberty above human authority... Judeo-Christian traditions are the ultimate check on government abuse..."
Of course no reasonable person wants forcibly "imposed secularism" -- freedom of religion is essential -- but the notion that Judeo-Christian traditions are what protect our liberty is false. And the essential aspect of "state-centered totalitarian regimes" is their collectivism, not their "secularism."
In his December 4 article for The Denver Post, John Andrews predicts, "Narnia's heroism will be lost on these atheist scolds. But it will delight the common-sense majority that still believes virtue and faith are good things." Andrews believes the loss of Christianity results in "spiritual malnutrition." Andrews further argues that "America's faith and piety is the friend, not the foe, of America's freedom and prosperity... Remove a divine standard of justice, and we are under a jungle law where might makes right." Andrews sees the battle as between "people of faith" and "coercive utopians."
In a December 8 e-mail, Andrews writes, "Why do the enemies of faith get a pass for their own blind belief? Columnist Paul Campos blows the whistle on them."
Campos wrote a column titled, "Materialism's leap of faith," for the November 29 Rocky Mountain News, in which he discusses Sam Harris's The End of Faith (which I have not read). Campos argues that the alternative to "faith" is a form of "reason" built on materialism, "the view that at bottom reality consists of nothing but particles in fields of force, and that all events are caused solely by the operation of mindless physical laws." So, by "reason," Campos means the rejection of human consciousness and volition.
Campos further argues, "[B]elieving in materialism is an act of faith like any other. The ultimate nature of reality isn't a scientific question, and anyone who expects science to provide answers regarding such matters doesn't understand either science or religion." Campos thus posits skepticism as the only alternative to divine truth.
Campos argues that materialism disallows the following claims: "1. Torturing a child for one's own sexual gratification is evil. 2. Shakespeare is a better writer than George Lucas. 3. Human beings have free will. An intellectually honest materialist must reject all these claims." Campos explicitly invokes social subjectivism as the alternative to religious faith: for materialists it is "social judgment that determines the content of morality." For Campos, materialism "reduces the catalog of things that actually exist to those which can be investigated by science," and "it requires treating as illusions morality, art, free will," etc. Campos further argues that human morality requires a "basic moral order of the universe."
George Sowers, replied to Campos in a December 6 letter. Sowers argued that science is not the equivalent of faith. Unfortunately, Sowers also granted that, without religion, there is not objective basis for morality: "Any logical foundation of values requires some statements of goals or values as premises -- regardless of one's philosophic stance." That's just subjectivism, as Campos charged. Sowers does offer a brand of materialism that leaves room for free will.
Tibor Machan offered a better refutation of Campos's claims. Machan characterizes faith as a "non-rational commitment." Campos points to the absurdities of moral subjectivism, and Machan points to the absurdities of Christianity: "After all, to believe that Mary gave birth to Jesus without having had intercourse, that Jesus walked on water, made wine from water, and raised the dead does require the rejection of evidence and reason." Machan points out that there "really is a difference between convictions or beliefs based on reasoning, argument, evidence, etc., versus those based on faith..."
Significantly, Machan distinguishes naturalism from materialism. He writes, "A naturalist holds that everything that exists is part of nature -- it must obey natural (scientific) laws, and can be understood by means of the scientific method. But a naturalist, unlike a materialist, is not committed to the reductivist view Campos has attributed to Harris."
Objectivism challenges the claims of religion and subjectivism directly, demonstrating that morality may be discovered by the use of reason, based on the fundamental fact that living things must pursue values to sustain their lives. Thus, a legitimate morality is not found in some other-worldly form, nor in the commands of God, nor in a person's subjective preferences or "premises," nor in the whims of the collective. Instead, morality is grounded in the facts of reality.
Biddle reviews the personal and social forms of subjectivism:
Personal subjectivism is the idea that truth and morality are creations of the mind of the individual -- or matters of personal opinion. Social subjectivism is the notion that truth and morality are creations of the mind of a collective (a group of people) -- or matters of social convention. (Page 7)
Advocates of religion reject subjectivism. Except, as Biddle argues, religion is actually a type of subjectivism:
According to religion, God's existence and mysterious ways are incomprehensible to reason -- which means they don't make sense. God is purported to be greater than nature and unrestrained by natural law -- which is what "supernatural" means. Hence, His existence and authority cannot be proved but must be accepted on faith -- that is, in the absence of evidence and in defiance of logic... This is how an argument for God always ends. One believes because one believes -- which means: because one wants to. Religion is a doctrine based not on facts, but on feelings. Thus, claims to the contrary notwithstanding, religion is a form of subjectivism. (Page 16)
When the usual "debate" pits religious subjectivists against personal and social subjectivists, it's no wonder that both sides of the debate lapse into absurdity.
So the advocates of religion are, in fact, subjectivists in their methodology. But religion is also often subjectivist in that it seeks to replace the subjective moral pronouncements of man with the subjective moral pronouncements of God. Even though I disagree with Michael Huemer's central moral theory, I find much of value in his book, Ethical Intuitionism, such as the following argument:
We often hear warnings to the effect that the decline of religious belief undermines morality. There is more than one way of interpreting this concern, but here I shall focus on the suggestion that there could be no moral truths if God did not exist -- as Dostoyevsky says, if there is no God, everything is permitted. The Divine Command Theory of ethics holds that an action is morally right if and only if it is of a kind that God commands (or approves of, or wants us to perform). The version of the theory I want to discuss holds a similar view about all other evaluative properties, including goodness, justice, and so on -- that is, that all of these properties depend on God in such a way that nothing could have any evaluative property if God did not exist; however, in the following, I shall focus on the property of rightness. Since it takes rightness to be reducible and dependent on the attitudes of an observer (God), the Divine Command Theory is a form of subjectivism. This is worth pointing out, since the theory is often seen as the arch-nemesis of cultural relativism, whereas in fact the two are variants on the same basic metaethical approach. (Section 3.4)
The battle of the subjectivists poses quite a problem for our society. On one side, the religious subjectivists argue that man's law must reflect God's law. While sometimes Christians find in God's law support for "self-evident truths" regarding individual rights (which are actually creations of a this-worldly, broadly Aristotelian approach, as I've argued previously), more often Christians want to conform man's law to God's law by outlawing abortion; restricting drugs, alcohol, pornography, and homosexuality; requiring the teaching of Creationism; and forcing transfers of wealth to the poor. The end game for Christian (or Muslim) subjectivists is theocracy.
On the other side, the social subjectivists argue that law must reflect the nonrational preferences of society. While a few social subjectivists cling to the remnants of individual rights -- a tradition that does not rightly belong to them -- more often they want to conform law to social dictates by outlawing guns; restricting drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes; requiring the teaching of multiculturalism and pseudo-scientific environmentalism; and forcing transfers of wealth to the poor. The end game for social subjectivism is some variant of socialism.
By divorcing morality from this world, both forms of subjectivism tend to foster both a zealous pursuit of the wrong goals and a pragmatic, unprincipled approach to "real" life.
While the battle rages among the subjectivists, those who advocate objective standards of knowledge and morality based on reason and (this) reality quietly seek to establish a society based on the recognition of human volition and consciousness, reason and science, and life-based values.
One of the virtues of a free society (or even a semi-free society such as ours) is that people are free to celebrate whatever ideas they wish. The Christians are free to celebrate religious subjectivism and the allegedly miraculous birth of Jesus. The social subjectivists are free to celebrate multiculturalism and egalitarianism (and Wal-Mart envy).
Some have celebrated the birth of the divines Mithras or Jesus. I find more appeal in celebrating Bill of Rights Day (December 15) and the birth of Isaac Newton (January 4). More broadly, I shall spend the holiday season celebrating the birth of reason.