Remember these lines from “Song of Myself,” one of Whitman’s poems in Leaves of Grass?
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
That solipsistic verse always reminds me of the “some-scientists-are-religious” argument for accommodationism, but now it also reminds me of Michael Ruse. Yes, he is large, and yes, he contains multitudes. And this week he contradicts himself in a spectacularly muddled piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The nature of morality: replies to critics“. In it, he defends his assertion that there is an objective morality that has been bred into us by natural selection, buttressing in turn his argument that there are “ways of knowing” that don’t come from science. (In this case the “way of knowing” is that there are objective moral truths vouchsafed us by natural selection. You can read his original argument here.) This was part of a larger attack on scientism.
I don’t want to go into detail about the piece; if you want to wade through the marsh of his logic, such as it is, be my guest. I just want to point out two contradictions. But first the amusing and requisite dismissing of New Atheists and yours truly:
Well, I thought the Mormons were touchy, but they can’t hold a candle to the New Atheists, who are all over me for my views on the limits of science and, more particularly, the evolutionary-based nature of morality. . .
Here, lest I be accused of ignoring criticism, let me reply to three objections that have been leveled. The person these days who seems to find my thinking most offensively incorrect is the Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne. It is a strange world when my biggest critic is not some evangelical Young Earther, but the head of America’s major evolution society. [JAC: it's a strange world when one of the people who defends religion most ardently is not one of the faithful, but an avowed atheist.] Half joking, I suggested that I should be grateful for the publicity and put him on my payroll. He in turn suggests that a payment of 50 bucks would be appropriate and I have just written and sent a check—although if he goes on claiming that Alvin Plantinga has a “liberal faith,” I shall want my money back.
I haven’t gotten the damn check yet, but I’ll entertain readers’ suggestions about how to spend the dough.
And now the contradictions:
- First, the complaint that since I think morality is a product of evolution through natural selection, I must therefore be using science to justify my ethical claims. I too am committing the naturalistic fallacy. Not so. Distinguish between an explanation of the origin of something and its justification.
But later on he says:
My position is that evolutionary biology lays on us certain absolutes. These are adaptations brought on by natural selection to make us functioning social beings. It is in this sense that I claim that morality is not subjective.
Does anyone sense a contradiction there? Or can the philosophers among us use some casuistry to show that there’s a difference between saying that evolution doesn’t give us moral absolutes and that evolution does give us moral absolutes? That sounds like a job for Plantinga (aka Superman).
- Contradiction two; Ruse says:
I fully expect that societies that have different views from ours about the nature of women and gays and whatever will have different moral codes about women and gays and whatever. It is not the morality itself that is different.
He uses the example of abortion here: some people differ on whether a fetus counts as a human being. But that is a difference in morality, and anti-abortion activists are not going to abandon their views if you tell them that the three-month-old fetus isn’t human. Telling them that a fetus that young isn’t conscious, for instance, or can’t survive outside the womb, isn’t going to make them suddenly think, “Whoa; I didn’t know that. I’m pro-choice now!”
I defy you to read that column and not think that Ruse is either philosophically muddled or simply phoned in the piece without thinking about it. Whatever the truth, he owes me another fifty bucks.