I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee… Why Dawkins is wrong on #abortion #atheism

Head.  Desk.

It must be really difficult to be Richard Dawkins.  Each morning, he wakes up absolutely certain of things.  He is absolutely certain that the world around him is real and that anything for which he cannot find empirical evidence is not.  He is absolutely certain that only verifiable statements have truth values (except, of course, for the statement: ‘Only verifiable statements have truth values’ but that would just be obscurantist philosophers being silly).  He is absolutely certain that there’s a thing called secularism and that you need only be a wealthy, white, straight male in order to distinguish the secular from the religious.  He is absolutely certain that there’s nothing racist about hating on Muslims, nothing misogynist about excluding female perspectives if they do not accord with ‘strict logic’, and nothing to be gained in exploring the social sciences of hard sciences.  You theists should only engage with the best available science, but if you ask Dawkins to engage with the best available theology, you are mocked.

Of course, all of this assumes that Dawkins is even aware of the intellectual quagmire into which he’s been sinking for the better part of a decade.

Increasingly, I wonder if I have given Dawkins too much of the benefit of the doubt.  He recently took to Twitter to mansplain abortion to everybody and, well…

It didn’t go so well.

As is usual, the appropriate opening: I am pro-death.  I think that women have complete control over their bodies all the way through the process and there is no legal justification in protecting the baby from the mother at any point.  Late term abortions?  Go for it.

I am very much wedded to virtue ethics, spiced with a bit of good old fashioned Kantianism.  Morality is objectively true.  &c., &c.

Now let’s get to Dawkins.

With respect to those meanings of “human” that are relevant to the morality of abortion, any fetus is less human than an adult pig.

Oh…  Okay…  Whut?!

This makes absolutely zero sense.  Part of this suggests that there’s a spectrum upon which something might be considered ‘human’ and, upon this spectrum, is an equivalent position where one would find an adult pig.  Which spectrum is this?  Where does one find a copy of this spectrum?

Any sensible person would say that a pig is not at all human, yet a foetus is at least something like a human.  ‘At least something like a human’ is more human than ‘not at all a human’.

Dawkins (as we will see in a moment) is playing obscurantist word games with the word ‘morality’.  The definition of ‘human’ in his tweet is not a biological definition, but a moral definition.  Is there a moral definition of ‘human’?  No.  There’s a moral definition of ‘person’, but that wouldn’t be as trolltastic and Dawkins is nothing if not an attention-seeker.

The other word to look at here is ‘any’.  Any foetus is less (morally) human than an adult pig.  Dawkins will quickly back away from this claim into a weirdly pro-life position.

“Human” features relevant to the morality of abortion include ability to feel pain, fear etc & to be mourned by others.

Remember the word ‘any’ in his first tweet?  We are fairly certain that late term foetus are capable of feeling pain and fear.  When they are miscarried, they are mourned.  So we know of some foetus who are ‘more human’ (seriously, what?) than an adult pig.

But from where is Dawkins pulling this definition?  Why are those features relevant to being ‘morally human’?

The answer: Dawkins has stacked the deck.  We know medical conditions where people are incapable of feeling pain (CIPA) or sensing fear (certain damage to the brain).  But Dawkins doesn’t want a free-for-all on those people with atypical neural processes, so he includes the backdoor argument of ‘to be mourned by others’.  What this does is connect the individual to the social community.  You are ‘morally human’ if somebody will mourn your death.

Crazily enough, this opens the door to all kinds of vegan weirdness.  ‘My cow can sense pain, fear, and will be mourned by me.  It’s unethical to eat cows.’

Dawkins starts to suspect he’s burying himself in crazy, so sends in more crazy trains as cover.  First, he tweets a strawman about miscarriage.  It’s a nonsense tweet.  Then he brings out the big gun:

Yes, anything can be mourned.  If you are going to mourn your fetus, you are free not to have an abortion.

Mansplained like a boss, yo.  ‘You are only free to have an abortion if you are not in any way emotionally connected to the foetus.’

There’s an obvious counter example.  I think it’s morally permissible to abort a foetus if the child is disabled.  I can imagine being in a horrible situation where my partner is faced with the choice of keeping a foetus to whom she has grown extremely fond and of aborting the foetus because she does not believe it’s ethically correct to give birth to a child who will suffer the disability.  Dawkins is telling her that she is not free to have an abortion if she’s going to mourn it.

We should stop here for a moment.  I think Dawkins has half understood a conversation he’s had with A.C. Grayling and is trying to repeat it.  Dawkins’ buffoonish attempt to construct an argument really does sound like an undergraduate at the pub trying to appropriate their lecturer’s words.  Dawkins has not presented even a remotely sane argument here.

Further, it says nothing about duty to protect which Dawkins himself has used on a number of occasions in his theodicy: ‘God could prevent a murder but He does nothing to stop it.  Therefore, God is not omnipotent or God is evil.  Therefore, God doesn’t exist.’  Dawkins can’t pull that munted rabbit out of the hat and then abort it the second it’s inconvenient.  What is the moral duty of the community to prevent murders?  If we know that a murder is going to happen, do we have an obligation to do something to prevent it?  This is a problem for Dawkins (and not for me) because Dawkins has said that preventing a murder when you can is intuitively a moral obligation but wants to turn the act of abortion into a private matter between a woman and her foetus.  If you are pro-life, you are not just pro-life for your own foetus; you are pro-life because you think that all foetus deserve protection.

Back to Dawkins’ tweets:

My criterion for “relevant to morality of abortion” is standard consequentialist morality.  Opponents follow absolutist morality.  Simple.

The opposite of ‘consequentialist’ is not ‘absolutist’.  Dawkins is attempting to smear opponents: ‘Oh, you’re just an absolutist.  My absolute nonsense is anti-absolutionism.’

Further, it’s not ‘standard consequentialist morality’.  If that denotes anything, it denotes ‘rule consequentialism‘ which Dawkins has not described.

First, ‘human’ is not a moral category so ‘my definition is standard consequentialist morality’ is completely nonsensical.  It’s like somebody saying: ‘My definition of “tennis” is standard quantum physics.’

Second, we’ve already seen why it wouldn’t be ‘standard’ consequentialist morality.  Although I think consequentialists are incorrect, I don’t think consequentialists are stupid.  Dawkins’ criteria are stupid.

Worse, a non-absolutist consequentialism can result in a pro-life stance.  Indeed, a lot of pro-life arguments are consequentialist, examining the overall utility and good in protecting defenseless foetus against being terminated.  We see this often: ‘Abortion stops the foetus from maximally enjoying their life.’  No absolutism needed.

Confusingly, Dawkins’ argument relies on an absolutist definition of ‘human’ (by which we should all think he means ‘person’).  A human is a creature which can feel pain, experience fear, and will be mourned by others.  Why are these the criteria?  Because Dawkins is using an absolutist definition of human/person.

The next dozen tweets or so are old man crazy ranting.  He returns to the land of coherency with this strange nugget:

Unlike many pro-choice friends, I think that fetal pain could outweigh woman’s right to control her own body.  But pig pain matters too.


Dawkins’ argument is contingent on our understanding of foetal pain not changing.  If we discover that you don’t need brains in order to feel pain — or, rather, if we discover that you don’t need a brain in order to feel pain on the same level as an adult pig… wtf — then Dawkins’ batshit argument leaves open the door for abortion to be morally impermissible.  Further, Dawkins’ argument explictly excludes the right of a woman to have a late term abortion, which is cray-cray.

A woman is eight months pregnant.  She is in a loving relationship with a man whom she intends to raise the child.  A freak accident results in his death and she has a severe mental breakdown.  It is flatly immoral to say to the woman that she cannot terminate the pregnancy just because Richard Dawkins thinks that the foetus’ ‘pain’ outweighs the mother’s quality of life.

Any good argument in favour of abortion will not be contingent on quirks.  We simply do not know how a pig experiences pain.  We don’t know what it’s like to be a pig.  We hazard a guess that the experience is similar to our own, but there’s no real evidence that it is.  You can’t see subjective experience on a brain scan.  An adult pig might experience fear and pain in ways far beyond our own capacity — it would be odd if Dawkins thought that this meant it was okay to start killing other people willy nilly.

In short, he doesn’t know.  He’s making it up.

But it sounds sort of sciencey.  Like ‘evolutionary psychology’, it has all the right words there to make you feel like this is a rational argument.  ‘Yeah, I’d eat pigs.  Pigs are less morally human than me.  Foetus are less morally human than pigs.  Abortions are great.’  But there’s no coherence to the argument.  How could something be ‘less morally human’?  Why do pain, fear, and ability to be mourned matter?  Why is it a private affair and not something which should concern the moral community?  Why do women lose control of their bodies?  Dawkins doesn’t have an answer to any of this because Dawkins hasn’t really thought about it.  This is him looking at the world and deciding that whatever he intuits must be factual.  You know, like a lay-theist does when they look at the world and see that it’s ‘designed’.

In conclusion, pop-atheists really need some new role models.

As I walk along the avenue… Omniscience, Omnipotence, and #atheism

A friend of mine sends me links to Futility Closet.  It’s awesome.

One post recently caught my attention: ‘Ordained‘.

If God makes decisions, then he has a future.

But if he’s omniscient, then he already knows that future.

Can he then have free will?

Let’s be kind and pretend that the structure is logically sound (it’s not, but we can see what it’s trying to do).  And let’s tweak it so it uses more familiar language (‘If God makes decisions, then he has a future’?).

If God is omnipotent, He can do anything.

If God is omniscient, God knows what He will do tomorrow.

If God knows what He will do tomorrow, can He change His mind and do something else?

A lot of pop-atheist debate begins with setting out a definition of terms.  The standard method is to use a lick-of-the-thumb common language approach.  Omniscient means ‘can do anything’.  Omniscient means ‘knows everything’.

The problem with this approach is that denies that there’s anything intellectually serious about theology.  Imagine the outcry if a theist began an argument against Darwinism by defining evolution as ‘That thing Pokemon do to turn into stronger Pokemon.’  When physicists use terms, they might have specialist meanings that aren’t in common with the general public.  Why do we expect theological terms to be different?

Also, if we define terms in a way which is prejudicial to the case of our interlocutors, then refuse to analyse those definitions, are we really having a discussion about the possibility of God?

When we say that an omnipotent being can do anything, what do we mean by ‘anything’?  Could an omnipotent agent make twice two equal to five?  Could an omnipotent agent microwave a burrito so hot that they could not eat it?  Could an omnipotent agent make colourless green dreams sleep furiously?  Could an omnipotent agent defeat Ganon in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past with the Fire Rod (instead of the Silver Arrows) without breaking the rules of the game?

Language allows for a lot of valid constructions which don’t necessarily link to sensible ideas.  When we’re talking about omnipotence, is it reasonable to point to this failure of language as an inconsistency in the logic of omnipotence?

Thus, theologians and philosophers play with a lot of different ideas of omnipotence and the consequences of those ideas.  Perhaps ‘omnipotence’ means ‘a being more capable of activity greater than which it is impossible to conceive’?  In which case, omnipotence might not be terribly great: what if, for some strange reason, it’s not logically possible in some world to lift more than 51 kilogrammes?  What if our ability to conceive great things is really rubbish and there are beings which are possible but not conceivable?  And so on and so forth.  Thus, theology and philosophy of religion.

But let’s be civilised about it and say: ‘While we can’t give a really good definition of omnipotence, we basically agree on what we mean.  Super-dooper powerful.  If your omnipotent being can’t change their mind, you’ve got a problem with omnipotence.’

We similarly unpack the idea of omniscience.  Are future states ‘knowable’?  This is a contested point (future propositions might not have truth values).  Are the actions of a free agent ‘knowable’?  This is another contested point.

But we don’t need to play with those ideas too much.  We can instead look at what it means to know something.  I have TiVo.  It taped a live program this evening (Q&A).  If I watch the program now, I know what the agents will say.  That doesn’t mean that the agents were restricted in power at the time it was recorded.  Knowing the outcome of the event is secondary to the determination of the event.  Similarly, an omniscient’s knowledge of future events (if possible) isn’t what determines the future event; this knowledge is secondary to the determination of those future events.

That got pretty dense.

I go through this for a broader reason than just the above argument.  When people drop these three-liners, they rarely explore the assumptions being made which underpin them.  Big name atheists — significantly moreso than big name theists — routinely make these sort of handwaved arguments without coming terms with what the arguments mean.  Indeed, ordinary pop-atheists are actively discouraged from exploring them.

I’m an atheist, and the above, to me, shows why religious education in public schools is essential to a pluralistic society in the future.  We need a population that can discuss and interrogate its religious beliefs and its irreligious beliefs intelligently and coherently.  We don’t have a population that’s capable of it at the moment.  Why?  Because religious education, where taught, is taught by well-meaning volunteers who don’t understand the importance of good religious education, and they’re opposed by a loud group of well-meaning atheists who are incapable of any reason regarding the place of religion in society.

The future is pluralism; not secularism.

My eagle’s busy doing other things… Why New Atheism hates Islam and dissent.

This week, we have been treated to something almost entirely absent in the broader atheist discussion: dissent. When Jeff Sparrow wrote that progressive atheists were disconcertingly quiet in response to the nasty streak of neo-con Islamophobia amongst New Atheists, the comment section went wild.

Despite stating, in no uncertain terms, that “[i]n Australia, the most prominent local atheists […] are, to various degrees, associated with progressive politics”, atheist readers could see nothing but an unmitigated attack on them and their beliefs. Dr David Horton wondered “how [Sparrow’s] tarring-all atheists-with-a-one-quote-from-Hitchens-broad-brush stands up to meeting actual, you know, atheists“. President of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, Mr David Nicholls, thought the piece was “a marvellous display of quote mining, misrepresentation and downright misunderstanding about Atheism, all in one go“.

Reading through the responses, I became both saddened and frustrated. Atheists won’t get riled up about racism in their midsts, but they’ll go ape over criticism.

As both a conservative and an atheist, I have no doubt that Sparrow is correct. Having to confront on nearly a daily basis the xenophobia and racism of political leaders who are supposed to represent my political persuasion, it is nauseating to see the same traits among the most vocal advocates of my religious beliefs. For all the New Atheist rhetoric about how religion is for sheep, it is much easier to find Catholics speaking out against homophobia within the Church than it is to find atheists speaking out against the Islamophobia preached by prominent UK and US New Atheists.

There is no dissent within New Atheism. There is no room for it. If you don’t toe the party line, you’re either marginalised or you’re suspected of being a covert theist.  I’ve often wondered to what extent this is due to market forces: would the Atheist Convention in Melbourne have been as successful if there had been dissenting voices?  Would people pay to have their views challenged?

Sparrow’s article drew attention to the disease within New Atheism but – as correctly noted by some of the commentators – didn’t analyse why New Atheism seems to slide so easily into xenophobia and racism. In fairness to him, Sparrow wasn’t trying to analyse the resultant xenophobia of atheology; had he turned his mind to it, I have no doubt he wouldn’t have found it a taxing task.

First, there’s the lack of diversity within New Atheist culture. The profile of the most internationally outspoken atheists is not insignificant: they’re old; they’re white; and (overwhelmingly) they’re male. Dr Sikivu Hutchinson, author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, argues “that New Atheism’s dominance by elite white males from the scientific community does not serve the broader interests of non-theist people of color. In order to make atheism and secular humanism relevant to people of color, our communities’ specific needs in a racist, sexist, heterosexist global context must be assessed.” It is hardly surprising that in a monoculture, intolerance festers.

Second, there is the stillborn debate between secularists and pluralists within modern atheist dialogues. Earlier this month on New Matilda, Adam Brereton argued in favour of secularism. After arguing that religion has no place in our schools or public debate, Brereton asserts that “secularism is a virtue. It prevents all of us — religious or otherwise — from having our tolerant society smeared by this kind of rubbish. Churches and secularist groups alike should take up the battle to change the Australian settlement’s historical muddle and keep the proselytisers where they belong — in church.” Although he doesn’t use the phrase, it seems that Brereton is an advocate of freedom from religion.

Contrariwise, atheists could argue in favour of freedom of religion: where public discussion is flavoured by all kinds of religious (and non-religious) viewpoints. Religious education in schools, for example, would be less about forcing children to accept particular religious beliefs and more about teaching them how to elucidate and discuss their religious beliefs. This viewpoint is called ‘pluralism’.

Secularism is currently the unofficial orthodox position of the New Atheist congregation, and it’s not clear why. Why should we prefer secularism (where religion is suppressed or rendered invisible) to pluralism (where there’s a multitude of voices in the public debate)?

Third, there are the unexamined cultural assumptions of New Atheism. New Atheism is less <i>secular</i> than it is <i>disbelieving Christianity</i>.  Although they’ve crossed out the word ‘God’ and question the historical accuracy of Jesus, they’ve imported all the existing cultural values and dubbed it ‘universal’.  Nowhere is this seen most than in how the secularist panacea of “Keep religion where it belongs” is applied in different ways to different groups.  To Christians, this means ‘in Church’.  To Muslims, this invariably means ‘Back in your home country (unless you were born here)’.

Finally, there’s the “Otherness” factor. Atheists are finally in the position where they understand (fundamentalist) Christianity.  The internet has cracked the nut wide open.  Where the atheists of the glorious past were engaging in the problems of mainstream, orthodox Christianity, New Atheism is chiefly concerned with the nutbag, backwater Christianity which ‘predicts’ the apocalypse and thinks that Noah rode around on a triceratops. New Atheists are, by and large, stone ignorant about Islam, considering it to be a pseudo-Mediaeval attack on their ‘universal’ values.  Until we have equal representation of atheists from Islamic backgrounds, this won’t change.

Too much carbon monoxide for me to bear… Why atheists should love the cosmological argument

The review I wrote yesterday reminded me of something awesome.  While you’re knitting on this cold Sunday afternoon, let me outline this awesomeness.

The cosmological argument has been around since Aristotle, at least.  In a nutshell, it says that everything has an origin, therefore the universe has an origin, therefore God.  Over time, the argument has become significantly more sophisticated — deftly avoiding the asinine ‘So what’s God’s origin, huh?’ response — and a thousand times more useful for atheists.

That’s not a typo.

One of the fundamental properties of physical objects (i.e. those we perceive empirically) is that they obey cause and effect.  This has been a cornerstone of empiricism since Hume.  Basically, if the principle of cause and effect isn’t true, we have absolutely no way of interpreting the world around us.  Before anybody gets too Deepak Chopra on me, this rule of cause and effect also applies to quantum events.  Yes it does.

So we get the following:

For any physical object, there is a cause. (P1)

The universe is a physical object. (P2)

Therefore, the universe has a cause, x. (From P1 + P2)

If x is a physical object, it has a cause. (From P1)

From this, we can see that we’ll either end up with an infinite chain or we’ll end up with x being a non-physical object.

To keep it quick, we can deny that there’s an infinite chain of causation.  Our observations of the universe do not support there being an infinite chain.  An infinite chain also lacks explanatory power: why is there an infinite chain rather than nothing?

So we’ve got a non-physical cause to the universe.  It’s usually at this point that one of two things happen:

1. Theists jump to ‘And this non-physical cause is God.’

2. Atheists try to deny the non-physical cause.

(1) is clearly batshit.  Let us not speak of it, but look and pass on.

(2) causes extreme difficulty for outspoken atheists.  Richard Dawkins — in one of the many wall-banger moments in The God Delusion — writes:

[I]t is more parsimonious to conjure up, say, a ‘big bang singularity’, or some other physical concept as yet unknown. [Source: Dawkins, The God Delusion, Ch. 3]

So… he’s denying cause and effect?  Really?  Or by ‘physical’ does he mean ‘non-physical’ (sort of like how Sam Harris uses the word ‘science’ to mean ‘science and lots of things which are not science’)?

We atheists can do a whole lot better.

An option we have available to us is to deny that all objects are physical objects.  There are some objects, for example, which we can only understand through reason and rationality but cannot experience.  The object which gave rise to physical objects, for example, is one of them.  This is also good news for atheists who want to be realists about mathematics as well (I’m not in that group, but we might as well spread the love).

But, best of all, it allows atheists to claim back the (currently) unchallenged turf of theists: the parts of our ontology which extend beyond empirical verification.

(2) leaves atheists exposed because it’s so extremely irrational and forces us into the untenable position of admitting only empirically verifiable objects into our world.  Atheists should admit the solid reasoning of the cosmological argument and attack the leap from ‘non-physical object’ to God.