Douthat responds to me, decries materialism again

At his own New York Times “opinion blog”, Ross Douthat has responded to my New Republic column (based on a piece I wrote here) criticizing his own “Christmas column.” You may remember that dreadful piece in which Douthat dissed secularism as a “rope bridge flung across a chasm” that “wafts into a logical abyss.”

He also claimedthat there were serious cracks in materialism—cracks apparently illustrated by philosopher Tom Nagel’s unevidenced evocation of a teleological force in biology, as well as by Steve Weinberg’s correct claim that we don’t yet understand everything about physics.  That was Douthat’s sole evidence that the materialist paradigm is about to disintegrate.

Doubthat’s “Christmas” column was a desperate defense against the inroads of secular reason against his beloved Catholicism, but New York Times readers weren’t fooled (see the “reader’s choice” comments at the end of his column: they’re nearly all critical and anti-religious).

In his new piece, “The confidence of Jerry Coyne,” Douthat continues his cluelessness by trying to show that my materialism is inconsistent in two respects and overconfident in another. His arguments:

1.  If I think the “self” is an illusion, I have no justification for saying that I have a “purpose.” 


So Coyne’s vision for humanity here is heroic, promethean, quasi-existentialist: Precisely because the cosmos has no architect or plan or underlying purpose, we are free to “forge” our own purposes, to “make” meaning for ourselves, to create an ethics worthy of a free species, to seize responsibility for our own lives and codes and goals rather than punting the issue to some imaginary skygod. (Ayn Rand could not have put it better.) And these self-created purposes have the great advantage of being really, truly real, whereas the purposes suggested by religion are by definition “illusory.”

Well and good.  But then halfway through this peroration, we have as an aside the confession that yes, okay, it’s quite possible given materialist premises that “our sense of self is a neuronal illusion.” At which point the entire edifice suddenly looks terribly wobbly — because who, exactly, is doing all of this forging and shaping and purpose-creating if Jerry Coyne, as I understand him (and I assume he understands himself) quite possibly does not actually exist at all? The theme of his argument is the crucial importance of human agency under eliminative materialism, but if under materialist premises the actual agent is quite possibly a fiction, then who exactly is this I who “reads” and “learns” and “teaches,” and why in the universe’s name should my illusory self believe Coyne’s bold proclamation that his illusory self’s purposes are somehow “real” and worthy of devotion and pursuit?

Douthat sees this as a “contradiction.”  Apparently his notion of “purpose” involves something given by Almighty God, and therefore whatever motivates the collation of atheistic neurons that feels itself to be Jerry Coyne cannot have a “purpose.” But of course Jerry Coyne does exist as an identifiable physical entity that feels itself to be an agent. That agency is an illusion: there is no little person in my brain that directs the activity of my neurons. There is no Coyne “soul” separate from those neurons, and neither is there a Douthat “soul.” But there still is a human being that bears my name and has desires and feelings different from those of other beings. These are certainly as “real” as any other feeling. And why should we believe Douthat’s bold proclamation that his body harbors a soul given by God, and that his God-given purpose is “real”? Perhaps Douthat should first give us evidence for his God before we take his purpose as more real than mine.

Further, as I and others maintain, our sense of agency is a remarkable illusion confected by evolution through the arrangement of our neurons. It may well have been a feature that was evolutionarily advantageous, and installed by natural selection. And that evolved collection of neurons, with its sense of agency, takes pleasure in certain things and feels it has goals.  That those feelings and goals are an inexorable result of our genes and environments is discomfiting to some, but that’s where the evidence points.  And while those goals are more complicated than those of, say, a squirrel, whose “purpose” is to reproduce, gather nuts, and bask in the sun, they all come down to whatever motivates an evolved organism—from the simple goals of simple organisms to the complex goals of complex organisms with complex brains.

Douthat doesn’t like this because he wants there to be a Douthat Soul that has a “purpose” bestowed by a celestial deity.  But there’s simply no evidence for that.  He wants there to be more than materialism, but there’s no evidence for that, either. We have no need of such hypotheses, except as childish desires for a father figure and an afterlife. Imagine a Martian zoologist observing a Catholic mass for the first time and trying to understand it. I suspect it would come off as some kind of adult game.

2. If we are evolved beings, then there is no justification for being moral.

Coyne proposes three arguments in favor of a cosmopolitan altruism, two of which are circular: Making a “harmonious society” and helping “those in need” are reasons for altruism that presuppose a certain view of the moral law, in which charity and harmony are considered worthwhile and important goals. (If my question is, “what’s the justification for your rights-based egalitarianism?” saying “because it’s egalitarian!” is not much of an answer.)

The third at least seems to have some kind of Darwinian-ish, quasi-scientific logic, but among other difficulties it’s an argument that only holds so long as the altruistic choice comes at a relatively low cost: If you’re a white Southerner debating whether to speak out against a lynching party or a Dutch family contemplating whether to hide your Jewish neighbors from the SS, the respect factor isn’t really in play — as, indeed, it rarely is in any moral dilemma worthy of the name. (And of course, depending on your ideas about harmony and stability, Coyne’s “harmonious society” argument might also seem like a case against opposing Jim Crow or anti-Semitism — because why rock the boat on behalf of a persecuted minority when stability and order are the greater goods?)

The first two arguments are not at all circular, but the results of reasoning and evolution.  I’ve often said that I don’t know how much of human morality comes from natural selection’s instilling in us certain behaviors and feelings, and how much is due to reason. But I am virtually certain that none of it is due to God.

I want to live in a society where people are treated fairly and in which, if I were disadvantaged, people would try to help me. For it is only an accident of history that has made me more advantaged than others. Acting altruistically is what I consider “moral,” though I’d prefer to use the term “good for society as a whole.” Yes, that is a form of consequentialism, but in the end one has to decide “oughts,” and it’s always a judgment call.

But it’s better to make a judgment call based on science, observation, and reason than on the dictates of a fictional being. We are evolved social beings that have been bequeathed big brains by natural selection, and can reason about what kind of society we want. The answer about why we should be altruistic or compassionate is not “because it’s egalitarian,” but because it’s better for all of us if we increase well-being. (I don’t think that’s all there is to “morality”, but to a large extent I see Sam Harris as right. Although morality is not objective, it almost always comports with “do what increases well being.”) And, at any rate, answering “Why be altruistic?” with “Because God wants us to be” is hardly more satisfying.

As for “stability and order” being the greatest goods, we now realize that if one buys such stability at the cost of disenfranchising groups of people for no discernible reason, that creates a society in which the disorder remains, but is hidden and suppressed. The stability and order are illusory, for there is instability and disorder in people’s minds, and the general well-being could be greater.  Finally, not all evolved “moral intuition” is useful in today’s world, for we no longer live in the small social groups that dominated 99% of our evolutionary history. Xenophobia, for instance, may be one such vestigial behavior.

3. I’m too confident about the ultimate victory of secular reason.


Finally, I enjoyed Coyne’s parting sally:

“Douthat is wrong. The cracks are not in the edifice of secularism, but in the temples of faith. As he should know if he reads his own newspaper, secularism is not cracking up but growing in the U.S. He and his fellow religionists are on the way out, and his columns are his swan song. It may take years, but one fine day our grandchildren will look back on people like Douthat, shake their heads, and wonder why some people couldn’t put away their childish things.”

For a man who believes in “a physical and purposeless universe” with no room for teleology, Coyne seems remarkably confident about what direction human history is going in, and where it will end up. For my part, I don’t make any pretense to know what ideas will be au courant a hundred years from now, and as I said in the column, I think there are all kinds of worldviews that could gain ground — at the expense of my own Catholicism and secular materialism alike. (Right now, the territory around pantheism and panpsychism seems ripe for further population, but that’s just a guess.) But I suppose it’s a testament to my own childish faith in the “neuronal illusion” that is the human intellect that I can’t imagine a permanent intellectual victory for a worldview as ill-served by its popularizers as atheism is by Jerry Coyne.

Well, the fate of secularism hardly depends on my efficacy as a small-time writer! Of course Douthat doesn’t really conceive of his faith as childish, but if that’s the case, and he’s a public intellectual, let us hear the reasons for his belief, and why he’s so sure that Catholicism is the “right” belief rather than Islam. For, if he’s made a mistake in that case, he’ll burn in hell forever.

All I know is what I see and what I discern from history, and in this I’ve been influenced by Steve Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature.  There does seem to be a pattern in human behavior that, while not completely smooth, is moving towards an appreciation for the sufferings of others, whether those others be women, gays, minorities, children, or animals. And religion is clearly on the wane. It was unthinkable to not be a Christian in Europe three centuries ago, but now in many parts of Europe belief in God is a minority view. It is now unthinkable that, at least in Western countries, child labor, public torture of animals as public amusement, and slavery will ever return.  (Yes, bullfighting and fox-hunting are on the way out). Or that Douthat’s Catholic church could put heretics to the stake. Or does he think that an Inquisition is just as likely as the demise of Catholicism?

Of course it will take centuries to dispel the illusion of the supernatural, but in the end I think the lack of evidence will triumph over wish-thinking. I am not 100%, but the evidence is more on my side than Douthat’s. “Pantheism” in many cases is just another word for “atheism,” and panpsychism—the view that mind permeates the universe—seems silly, even if it’s touted by Thomas Nagel. 

In the end, Douthat, like many, is simply uncomfortable with a materialist worldview, and wants desperately for there to be More Than That. He yearns for a teleological or divine force that, he thinks, will give our lives real purpose and meaning, and serve as a ground for morality. The lack of evidence for such a force must surely disturb him a bit. If it doesn’t, he’s not thinking.

h/t: Greg Mayer


  1. Posted January 7, 2014 at 5:46 am | Permalink


    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted January 7, 2014 at 5:51 am | Permalink


      • Diane G.
        Posted January 7, 2014 at 11:12 pm | Permalink


  2. Posted January 7, 2014 at 6:05 am | Permalink

    “Douthat doesn’t like that because he wants there to be a Douthat soul that has a ‘purpose’ bestowed by a celestial deity.”

    Which, ironically, would make Douthat more of an automaton than his assumed caricature of materialism. This tendency to think of materialism as a dichotomy rather than as a continuity is based on a desire to anthropomorphize the constituent elements.

    • Posted January 7, 2014 at 6:50 am | Permalink

      Yeah, most of these tirades on purpose, meaning and moral authority are symptoms of a hardcore rationalism. To guys like Douthat, 2+2=4 is not just true, it is the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It is very hard for someone starting from that point to take history seriously or to see any validity in reductive explanations. The world’s all forms and logos underneath, as they see it, so they have great difficulty understanding any viewpoint which does not acknowledge forms and logos from the start.

  3. NewEnglandBob
    Posted January 7, 2014 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    I have been reading Dothat’s columns recently and it is astounding to me that he is wrong in every single one. I’ve not found one column where I agree with him.

    I find it very funny that he can take a concept, twist it so much, and come up with ridiculous conclusions.

    I have also seen him be part of a cable news channel discussion, where, unfortunately, his ridiculous statements are not countered due to them “showing both sides” of an issue.

  4. Paul
    Posted January 7, 2014 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    Doesn’t make much sense to keep refuting the same arguments again and again. Just ignore this asshat from now on. I doubt he believes any of that anyway, pretty sure he is just a paid messenger for “the conservatives”; then again, maybe he really is that dumb.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 7, 2014 at 7:12 am | Permalink

      Arguing against religion will always consist of “refuting the same arguments again and again.” Because they can’t come up with anything new, can they? There are no illuminating discoveries being made in the field of the supernatural, it’s all verbal rehashing of the same groundless ground. Douthat has the advantage of being able to state some of the specific issues which worry even the unsophisticated in a very sophisticated way, thus representing a better “reasonable” case against atheism for our response.

      Move away from Douthat and you’re just going to be encountering the same damn thing coming from someone else. Douthat at least provides a continuing forum in which to make what looks like a difficult point to make.

      • strongforce
        Posted January 7, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Permalink


      • Posted January 7, 2014 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

        Another reason we will constantly have to refute the same arguments over and over is that theists and conservatives often lead rather insular lives. Not only will they often “discover” some old chestnut relatively late in life, but they’ll have no one around to tell them it’s an old chestnut that’s already been soundly defeated.

        • Posted January 7, 2014 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

          And this shouldn’t come as a surprise, either. Centuries before the invention of Christianity the Greek philosophers had already utterly demolished what Christians consider some of their bedrock foundational principles. For example, Epicurus provided overwhelming empirical evidence demonstrating that there are no good gods, and Plato (via Euthyphro) showed how morality cannot possibly even in principle have a divine origin.

          Yet that doesn’t stop Christians from preaching otherwise week in and week out….



    • Notagod
      Posted January 7, 2014 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      I douthat anyone really likes refuting them again and again. However, given the circumstances we find ourselves in, as long as they keep dishing it up we are obliged to stomp it back down. To ignore them is to allow their superstition further intrusion into our lives.

    • Marta
      Posted January 7, 2014 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      Jeepers. Must we always have someone post a comment that says “just ignore ’em”?

      Hasn’t this argument been refuted time and again?

      Are you new here?

  5. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted January 7, 2014 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    In the end, I think Douthat, like many, is simply uncomfortable with a materialist worldview, and wants desperately for there to be More Than That: some teleological or divine force that, he thinks, will give our lives real purpose and meaning, and serve as a ground for morality. The lack of evidence for such a force must surely disturb him a bit. If it doesn’t, he’s not thinking.

    That’s the problem with gods and religion. It can leave a vacuum that is not easily overcome and thus some people simply reject materialism because there are other more feel-good philosophies out there.

    Truth be damned.

  6. gbjames
    Posted January 7, 2014 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    “As I and and many others maintain”?

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted January 7, 2014 at 6:43 am | Permalink

      “Many others” refers to his fictional friends, just like his fictional God. It’s all in his head.

      • gbjames
        Posted January 7, 2014 at 6:46 am | Permalink

        (I think it is a minor typo in Jerry’s wording…. missing word.)

  7. John K.
    Posted January 7, 2014 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    Ah, the old “I have extra special god based knowledge, purpose, and morality so anything else that lacks god is inherently inadequate.” What an amazing “new” apologist tactic.

    As much as he harps on science for not having an explanation for everything, just saying a magical god did it is not really an explanation either. It just a rationalization that feels like an explanation. What a complex palace he has constructed upon such a flimsy argument from ignorance.

  8. Posted January 7, 2014 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    Apparently his notion of “purpose” involves something given by Almighty God, and therefore whatever motivates the collation of atheistic neurons that feels itself to be Jerry Coyne cannot have a “purpose.” But of course Jerry Coyne does exist as an identifiable physical entity that feels itself to be an agent.

    Why can’t we just translate that “identifiable physical entity that feels itself to be an agent” part to be “self”? Sure, it isn’t a soul, or an immaterial self, but it sounds a lot like a self to me. For the most part, you simply want to deny that that self thing is immaterial, not that it exists, but calling the SELF an illusion implies that you are denying the self itself, and not just its immateriality. Your arguent, then, looks like you saying “The self is merely an illusion .. but of course we have a SELF”, which is what Douthat is claiming is the contradiction. You’d be better off simply saying that the idea that we get when we introspect that we have an immaterial and free, non-deterministic self is an illusion, not that the self and free will are themselves completely illusory (since both have been expressed in ways compatible with materialism).

    I want to live in a society where people are treated fairly and in which, if I were disadvantaged, people would try to help me. For it is only an accident of history that has made me more advantaged than others.

    The issue here is that all of your arguments, then, when justified at all are justified on an Egoist base: you justify being altruistic because it benefits you personally. Putting aside that that isn’t actually altruistic — you aren’t acting altruistically if your reason for taking the action is in fact your own personal gain — it breaks down as Douthat says when it turns out to be in your best interest to cheat. Even the evolutionatry argument only works on a notion of some sort of personal gain, even if only your genes. Once it is held that our internal deliberatiosn and reasons matter — by, under your view, changing our internal and experienced environment — we have to consider “because my genes will spread”, considered “in mind” as a SELFISH reason, and so not altruistic … and if you deny those sorts of reasons, then we act only how we happen to act, and morality of any form is irrelevant.

    • Posted January 7, 2014 at 7:15 am | Permalink

      Sorry, but then don’t come down to benefitting me personally; they benefit society. I don’t know where you got the idea that the reason I think we should act altruistically is because it helps me.

      Did you even read what I wrote?

      I want to live in a society where people are treated fairly and in which, if I were disadvantaged, people would try to help me. For it is only an accident of history that has made me more advantaged than others. Acting altruistically is what I consider “moral,” though I’d prefer to use the term “good for society as a whole.” Yes, that is a form of consequentialism, but in the end one has to decide “oughts,” and it’s always a judgment call.

      If you think that’s why I behave “altruistically,” why do I donate to charity? What do I get out of that?

      This is a form of the Rawlsian original position, and it does not mean that I want a society that always benefits me personally. Do you see the “good for society as a whole” part?

      • Greg Esres
        Posted January 7, 2014 at 7:37 am | Permalink

        I don’t know where you got the idea that the reason I think we should act altruistically is because it helps me.

        I think he’s referring to the fact that you’re stating your preferences about the sort of world you want to live in, so if altruism helps create that world, it is thus selfish.

        I think that’s an equivocation on the word “altruism”.

        • Posted January 7, 2014 at 8:17 am | Permalink

          It’s more thatm as far as I can see, when he tries to JUSTIFY the standards he holds he ends up appealing to his own personal self-interest and preferences. If you justify your actions on the basis that it’s better for you overall, that’s not altruistic by any reasonable definition of altruistic.

          • Greg Esres
            Posted January 7, 2014 at 8:37 am | Permalink

            “altruistic by any reasonable definition of altruistic.”

            “Reasonable” by your standards, but your standard is itself unreasonable, IMO. An organism cannot act at all without some sort of self-interest involved.

            Altruism might be better defined as something like being willing to suffer some material deprivation in order to better the welfare of others. We still might derive some mental satisfaction from such actions, so there is still some self-interest involved.

          • Curt Cameron
            Posted January 7, 2014 at 10:15 am | Permalink

            “…when he tries to JUSTIFY the standards he holds he ends up appealing to his own personal self-interest and preferences.”

            You’ve just defined altruism out of existence then. If someone acts altruistically, then of course it’s his own preference to do so. But you’ve just said that actions based on one’s preferences are not altruism.

            How do you get out of that conundrum?

          • Vaal
            Posted January 7, 2014 at 11:03 am | Permalink

            I think one of the problems here is agreeing on what amounts to one’s self interest or not.

            I’d put it this way:

            (Regarding deliberate actions)

            We always act to fulfill our desires. And in that sense even an “altruistic” action is one done to fulfill our desire.


            Not all of our desires are selfish. We often have desires that concern the well being (and desire-fulfillment) of other people. Sometimes either as ends to themselves, and/or being willing to subsume some of our own desires/well-being for the other person. Lots of parents know they’d give their life to protect their child, and atheists are capable of self-sacrifice (without expecting heavenly reward) for others.

            So, yeah, we always seek to fulfill our own desires, but the category of desires that motivate actions/concern for other people, especially ones that come at cost to ourselves, sit in the “Altruistic” category of desires, as opposed to the “selfish” category of desires, where only our own desire fulfillment is our aim.


          • Ken Kukec
            Posted January 7, 2014 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

            To expect a world permeated by pure altruism is unrealistically utopian. I would gladly settle for one in which reciprocal altruism or enlightened self-interest were the norm.

            • gbjames
              Posted January 7, 2014 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

              I don’t think it would be in anyone’s interest to live in such a world.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted January 7, 2014 at 9:45 am | Permalink

          Perhaps altruism needs a better definition or we need a different word since we now understand that biology plays an important role in it. Typically the things we do benefit us even if it is to make us feel good because we are empaths. Just about always within a social construct, doing someone a good turn benefits ourselves as well – we can get a favour back from that person, we get respect, from a group, we earn trust for further benefits, etc. We however, feel good about doing those things because of our emotions.

          If we lack empathy, we may be nice to others in the same way but we are keenly conscious of the benefits we are reaping and we aren’t motivated to good because it makes us feel good; instead of receiving a happy feeling for doing the deed we experience satisfaction in manipulating someone to our ends. Not surprisingly, sociopaths won’t feel regret when they suddenly turn on those people for our own advantage either.

          I envy sociopaths their cold logic sometimes.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted January 7, 2014 at 9:47 am | Permalink

            “their own advantage” – I Freudian Slipped & made sociopaths empaths. Sorry sociopaths.

          • Posted January 7, 2014 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

            Have you read Simon Baron-Cohen’s _Zero Degrees of Empathy_? (I think it had a more sensationalist title in the US.) Its another one of the books in my to-read list (i.e., on my bookshelves).

            /@ >

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted January 7, 2014 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

              It is now on my to-reads as well – thanks. I found it in Canada called: The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty I like the Zero Degrees title better – more flare.

    • Greg Esres
      Posted January 7, 2014 at 7:34 am | Permalink

      The issue here is that all of your arguments, then, when justified at all are justified on an Egoist base: you justify being altruistic because it benefits you personally.

      The religious arguments come down to that, too, if you’re going to define altruism in such an useless fashion. As you define it, there really is no such thing as altruism and we can dispense with the word.

      • Posted January 7, 2014 at 8:16 am | Permalink

        Well, there might not be altruism in the world, but it isn’t inherently useless, because I can indeed take actions without any conscious recognition of my own self-interest, or ones where I could actually benefit more personally by taking another action but choose one where by all reasonable measures I benefit less personally. All of these are are altruistic by my standards. What is your definition of altruistic?

        • Greg Esres
          Posted January 7, 2014 at 8:31 am | Permalink

          “because I can indeed take actions without any conscious recognition of my own self-interest”

          Ignoring the word “conscious”, which I don’t think is important, I’m pretty sure that you cannot act without your self interest being gratified, almost by definition.

        • JonLynnHarvey
          Posted January 7, 2014 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

          On one level, I behave altruistically because it makes me feel better. But it’s not a short-term immediate-gratification sense of feeling better. It makes me feel well-oriented to living in the long-term in a friendlier world. It’s the broader view.

    • Dale
      Posted January 7, 2014 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      It’s not our self that’s an illusion, it’s our sense of self.

      The reason that we do unto others as we would have others do unto us is because it’s been proven adaptive for the individual and the species.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted January 7, 2014 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

      Both selfishness and altruism are contradictions.

      A “selfish” person is liked by no one. How is that “self interest”, if that’s the definition of “selfish”?
      On the other hand, an “altruistic” person is liked by everyone. How is that is that “not self interest” if that’s the definition of “altruistic”?

      Regarding the “self”:
      You can only have a “self” consistent with materialism if you redefine the word. But history tells us that all redefinitions of this type – such as “spiritual”, “freewill”, and “god” are doomed to fail, because the general public assume we are using the original faith based definitions.

  9. Sastra
    Posted January 7, 2014 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    At which point the entire edifice suddenly looks terribly wobbly — because who, exactly, is doing all of this forging and shaping and purpose-creating if Jerry Coyne, as I understand him (and I assume he understands himself) quite possibly does not actually exist at all?

    I once came across a sentence which I have found useful for dealing with confusions like those expressed by Douthat:

    If something is an “illusion” that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t real; it just means that it’s not what it appears to be on the surface.

    Jerry isn’t denying his own existence. The “self” most certainly is real but it’s not what it feels like, an insubstantial ‘ghost in the machine’ which has only a superficial, proximate relationship to the neural circuitry embedded in the brain and its environment. The ‘ghost’ is the illusion, a faulty explanation for our experience.

    What Douthat appears to be doing then is taking your denial of an explanation to be a denial of the experience itself. Mental robots, where it is not like anything at all to be a Jerry Coyne!

    This is pretty much standard with supernaturalists, who think in essentialist terms and thus suffer from an exaggerated fear of reductionism. After all, what is God but the irreducible Nature of an extended list of irreducible mental qualities? It’s a clunky literalism which tries to accuse materialists of clunky literalism. Like comes only from like. Why, if you can reduce something with a defining quality to components which no longer have that quality, then the quality is gone, right? Where did it go? There’s no place it could have come from! So it cannot be! That way lies madness!!

    It’s as if someone were complaining that a chemist who states that water is simply made of the material elements of hydrogen and oxygen is now guilty of believing that water isn’t wet, since where is the “wetness” in a molecule of hydrogen or oxygen? No, to properly explain water one requires an essence which is, in itself, perfectly Wet. This essence gets to be its own explanation.

    One of the terms for doing this sort of thing is “greedy reductionism.”

    • Posted January 7, 2014 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      This is exactly the point I was going to make: an illusion is a disconnect between perception and reality, is all. You really do see all those funky things in optical illusions; it’s just that you’re seeing things that aren’t really there.

      This is the classic mistrake of equating the map with the territory, is all. A map of England is not England, but the itself map is still very real.



    • strongforce
      Posted January 7, 2014 at 12:52 pm | Permalink


    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted January 7, 2014 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      A hurricane and a whirlpool are not fixed solid objects. They are more of a process than a thing, but they are discernible entities none theless that one can point to and identify.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted January 7, 2014 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      “If something is an “illusion” that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t real; it just means that it’s not what it appears to be on the surface”

      It’s actually stronger than that.

      All illusions are real. By definition. Otherwise they are called delusions.

      The “illusion that there is a self” is as real as the “illusion that A and B in that checkerboard are different colours” is real. If you leave off the first two words you get “there is a self” and “A and B in that checkerboard are different colours” and now we have statements that are both false.

  10. Posted January 7, 2014 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    Ironic and odd that he would invoke the name of Ayn Rand. Her political and economic philosophy drive much of current GOP ideology, and Supply-Side Jesus has become the focus of worship for many conservative Christians.

  11. Posted January 7, 2014 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    I smell Douthat’s desperation. He knows that the game is up, and there will be no return to the Golden Days of the Catholic faith when they could burn dissenters, stifle science, rape children, and enforce their own sexual hysteria on the population at large.

    Religion only works for an individual if they never move to prove it. But Attenborough on television and people like us on the internet are forcing them onto the back foot, and so they are obliged to prove it, or at least, to defend it.

    The essence of his attack is curious, and barrel-scraping, hinting, as he does, at the non-existence of Jerry Coyne. I think that JAC is real, and has just stepped-out to but some Polish sausage, and, unlike the baby Jeebus, will be back soon.

    Good trick, that. … to move your confrontation to another plain of existence, suggesting, for example, that Douthat and Coyne may not have material existence, but both are perceptible as, say, gargoyles on a church eve. Is he just another losing Catholic reaching for another realm where Catholicism has some kind of self-justification?

    And he is losing on ‘purpose’ (As in Rick Warren’s ‘Purpose-Driven Life’) As I have said many times, all the religious are Drones, and have decided at an early age to identify a real or notional structure of authority, and to self-actualise by finding their place within that structure. It really doesn’t help the religious that so many of us cannot see their invisible authority-structure, topped with their gods. We have to be made to see it, or else their whole life falls apart, never mind their loss of paradise.

    And so to Douthat’s claim to be living within a moral framework invented by his gods. There is a marvellous blind-spot shared by so many religious people that morality can only come from religion. The Chinese people have little religion but remain a highly moral people, and so, too, the Japanese. For deep, unconscionable lack of morality you have to access Catholics worldwide. A thousand American priests, weekly raping children.

    Finally, Douthat’s confidence in the triumph of religion over reason. Drawing from Catholic dogma anybody can do the sums and guestimate that of all people on this earth, about one in 3,400 will go to the Catholic paradise. If the Catholic gods made and run the universe, why are they so poorly represented upon earth? Even the Pope has sussed this out, and is trying to stack heaven with atheists so that the very few Catholics who get there are not like a handful of beetles on an eternity of desert.

    The great wonder, this day and age, is that there remain some religious folk like Douthat who are so unaware of the mountains of knowledge against their childish beliefs, that they believe that they are winning, and that the fourteenth century will come back to swamp the earth as it did at the time of the Black Death.

    • Marta
      Posted January 7, 2014 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      “I smell Douthat’s desperation.”


      Every time I’ve followed up on a link that Jerry’s provided to a piece written by Douthat, the comments at the Douthat piece are, by a huge margin, excoriating–so much so that I continue to be dumbfounded that Douthat persists in writing anything. I mean, if I predicted that my readers were going to respond to me the same way that Douthat’s do, I’d just pick up a 20lb hammer with my left hand and use it to break all the bones in my right. This would be less painful, in the long run, than dealing with the loathing of my readers.

      • BillyJoe
        Posted January 7, 2014 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

        It has been shown that a person who has a strongly held belief that was not arrived at through evidence, reason, and logic will not change that strongly held belief as a result of evidence, reason, and logic. Almost paradoxically, for a true believer, contrary evidence, reason, and logic serve to actually strengthen their belief.

  12. lanceleuven
    Posted January 7, 2014 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    “I’ve been influenced by Steve Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature”

    I’ve been looking forward to reading this for a while now. And it’s finally worked it’s way to the top of the reading pile. I can’t put the damn thing down! I highly recommend it to anyone here who hasn’t picked it up yet.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 7, 2014 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      I liked it so much, I stumbled upon a great deal at Chapters (Canadian book store) where the hard cover was $5 so I snapped it up even though I already had the ebook.

      • lanceleuven
        Posted January 7, 2014 at 10:18 am | Permalink

        I did have to chuckle at his discussion of New Testamant violence. When summarised in such a way it really does highlight how ridiculous it is that anyone could describe it as “The Good Book”. If someone today wrote a book containing such extreme violence I wouldn’t be surprised if they were vilified by many of “The Good Book”‘s acolytes for being vile, gratuitous and undermining morality and decency.

        I was also appalled by the descriptions of ancient forms of torture and capital punishment. I’m astonished that human beings could inflict such horror on other humans. But, I guess that only serves to underline the book’s premise.

  13. Sastra
    Posted January 7, 2014 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    If my question is, “what’s the justification for your rights-based egalitarianism?” saying “because it’s egalitarian!” is not much of an answer.

    Assume for a moment that Douthat asks this question not to Jerry, but to God.

    What sort of proper answer would he expect? What satisfactory response could only God give, so that it now terminates any possible further requests for justification?

    Or is God not expected to justify — or be able to justify — its morals?

  14. Greg Esres
    Posted January 7, 2014 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    He yearns for a teleological or divine force that, he thinks, will give our lives real purpose and meaning

    While that might be nice, it saddens me to think that the purpose advocated by the Catholic Church is the best we could imagine.

  15. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted January 7, 2014 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    I’ve often said that I don’t know how much of human morality comes from natural selection’s instilling in us certain behaviors and feelings, and how much is due to reason.

    Isn’t it remarkable that human morals are just those you would expect in a species of social primates? For example, is it moral to bite the head off a lover after mating? No, but then we are not mantids.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 7, 2014 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      and our teeth are too small. 🙂

  16. Kevin
    Posted January 7, 2014 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    Imagine all reasons and categories of thought processes fielded on a football (soccer) team that provide us with justification, purpose, and explanation. Secular reason happens to be the best player on the team. Maybe it could have been a different way, but that is just the way it happens to be.

    • TJR
      Posted January 7, 2014 at 8:01 am | Permalink

      Whereas religious reasons are the Peter Beagrie of the team.

      A tricky winger who runs round a lot, beats players and looks great, but never actually achieves anything useful.

  17. Lyndon
    Posted January 7, 2014 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    Hey, bartender, give me some of that materialistic morality with a Rawlsian twist . . .

    Ah, well done. Good rebuttal.

  18. Posted January 7, 2014 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    You say,
    “Of course it will take centuries to dispel the illusion of the supernatural, but in the end I think the lack of evidence will triumph over wish-thinking.”

    So our illusionary selves will dispel the illusion of the supernatural among those illusionary selves who believe in illusion?;-)

    Do you think the concept of the “multi-universe” of some secular cosmologists is also illusionary?

    One creature not illusionary in her warnings: my cat Fizzy. She warned us of water flooding our garage, but I ignored her hyper-streaking, and am now paying the consequences (lost books, damaged files, etc. and weeks of plumbers, water-damage specialists) of my illusion that she was just being crazy from too much catnip.

  19. Posted January 7, 2014 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    You do seem to be approaching morality from a broadly consequentialist base, and Douthat doesn’t seem to take that seriously in his response. If the basis of our moral duties is, at bottom, that we are obligated to promote well-being in the world, then that’s all there is to say. That doesn’t mean it’s a circular argument, as he suggests; it just means it’s a brute fact, but we need brute facts somewhere. (On this, see Foundationalist Theories of Epistemic Justification.) If, e.g., he’s a Divine Command Theorist, then you could charge him with just as much circularity: If the basis of our moral obligations is God’s commands, that “presupposes” that we have a moral obligation to follow God’s commands.

    I would still question whether you mean what other philosophers mean when you say that morality isn’t objective. If you say that, then you’re left with saying that there are no moral truths, which you don’t seem to want to do, or with saying that they vary somehow based on the situation of the agent or observer, which you also don’t seem to want to do, since if you’re a more-or-less standard consequentialist, you think that we’re all morally required to promote goodness in the world, even if we don’t want to, even if we come from a culture that doesn’t generally do that, and so on. ‘Objective’ in metaethics just means that the truth doesn’t vary based on who you are, where you come from, or what you want or believe.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 7, 2014 at 9:57 am | Permalink

      ‘Objective’ in metaethics just means that the truth doesn’t vary based on who you are, where you come from, or what you want or believe.

      Well put. If the framework is inherently subjective — meaning that it necessarily involves subjects — then in that context “objective” and “intersubjective” are the same thing. You’re searching for what can be considered basic to the human species.

      I think Jerry is concerned that the word “objective” in ethics will be interpreted as meaning “outside of human beings” and this not only turns morality into enforced commands, but requires some extra-or-super-human source.

      • Posted January 7, 2014 at 10:14 am | Permalink

        That makes sense, but I think we still need to be careful. If Jerry wants to maintain that moral truths depend, for their existence, on the existence of moral agents, then that might at least commit him to a strange sort of non-physicalism.

        After all, he would have to hold, then, that at some point in our evolution, moral truths came into existence. In particular (e.g.), there was some point in the development of a fetus or child, maybe, at which now a moral truth came into existence. If that moral truth is a physical object, then does that mean, for instance, that it is one of the cells of this creature? That would be weird.

        But if it’s not a physical object, then some event in the physical universe would cause a non-physical entity to come into being, which might also seem strange, and at least violate the causal closure of the physical. Thus maybe Jerry has overall reason to hold that there are baseline moral truths that exist necessarily, but only “apply” when moral agents come into the world. (Analogously, ‘3 is prime’ will always be true, but only “apply” when there are three of something in the world.) Still, this would be an extra-human entity.

        • Sastra
          Posted January 7, 2014 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

          I don’t see the problem here, as long as Jerry sees that agency ultimately depends on or is a level attending matter in motion. “Moral truths” would then evolve gradually along with any species which develops inter-group “rules” which might or might not be followed. EO Wilson once parodied a speech on ethics given by hypothetically verbal ants:”It is an unquestionable truth that it is Objectively Good and Righteous to eat our feces.” Or something like that…

    • Lyndon
      Posted January 7, 2014 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      Speaking for my self and from an anti-realist position on morality, I see your statement as a bad start, “If the basis of our moral duties is, at bottom, that we are obligated to promote well-being in the world, then that’s all there is to say.” I think Jerry (from generally reading him and above) would agree that we do not need to start from a position that somehow we have agents who are “obligated.” Whether Harris makes this mistake is a little more iffy. We can see our social and “moral” discourses as what reasoning and reflective agents agree are good social practices that lead to better outcomes, ones that our evolutionary and socially structured brains will agree are practices that align with our desires and what we want from society. But we do not need to start from the position that we as agents are “obligated” by these social facts, even if they follow consequentially from our desires. That kind of language can be set aside as we negotiate and reflect on who we are, take into considerations things like Rawls, and ask about what kind of society and selves we want to build.

      • Lyndon
        Posted January 7, 2014 at 11:22 am | Permalink

        Following on above, I thought I would also make clear that we can separate the idea of “obligation” from describing what exists in the world (that somehow moral obligations are written into the world) from an intersubjective or social use. As you might say to a friend “I feel an obligation to help the homeless from the cold.” The latter use may mean something like, “given that I agree it was only a matter of circumstantial luck that the homeless finds their self in that situation, I have accepted the obligation that where we can, we should strive to mitigate their suffering.” The term obligation in this instance carries emotional weight attached to a previously agreed reflection (and probably also ties into natural empathetic structures) that encourages that individual to carry out an action.

        Your use of “obligation” above, which I see more as somehow literally existing in the fabric of the world, is the reason why moral anti-realism and careful use of the word “moral” and “obligation” is a better description of human affairs. It helps separate our best description about human beings from misunderstandings that arise from heuristic or framed uses of words that, if we allow, muddies up what our best descriptions of human behavior and discourses will be. In most situations, we do not have to worry about our use of the word obligation as it plays a useful function, but when we step back and are talking generally about “what morality is,” then we do need to filter out those connotations and beliefs that arise from heuristic clippings.

  20. Smith Powell
    Posted January 7, 2014 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    As usual, you have written an interesting column. Thank you again for providing such insightful arguments.

    You and your readers might find “A Wicked Company” by Philipp Blom a good read as it deals with the radical French Enlightenment that was thoroughly materialistic and humane. I was also interested in the link between the French philosophers and Lucretius and Epicurus.

    I am becoming increasingly convinced that Stephen Greenblatt’s assertion that Lucretius, through his poem, “De Rerum Natura”, had a profound influence on the Enlightenment, on modernity, and on the American experiment in government.

  21. kennyrb
    Posted January 7, 2014 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    How can something have no materiality yet exist? It appears that the “stuff” of supernaturalism is proposed to have non-thing existence. This is gibberish. If, however as is implied in the word, it is super-matter or matter of an altogether different sort, then Douthat’s complaint is directed at his own system.

    This wild problem is driven by the need for God to have a not-a-thing existence so that he can be the creator of matter. Thus, it becomes a solution that’s rationally worse than the problem.

    • Posted January 7, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      How can something have no materiality yet exist?

      One can posit all sorts of multiverse ways in which that might meaningfully be real.


      Now that the LHC team has confirmed the existence of the Higgs, we can have overwhelming confidence that nothing exists outside of the Standard Model that can influence human affairs.

      We know the Standard Model is not (yet? ever? stay tuned!) complete, of course. But the entire domain of things that can even theoretically influence human-scale events is thoroughly mapped out, with no room for anything else to be wedged in.

      Or, we’ve searched this and all adjoining rooms (plus the upstairs and downstairs) of the mansion down below the scale of dust motes in a methodical way that guarantees we’ve missed nothing. We’ve peeked into some of the rooms beyond and into the attic and cellar, but it’s dark there and we haven’t finished making the candles we need. But if anything from those places was to make it all the way to us, it’d have to go through the intervening rooms, and there’s not even ancient echoes of traces of tracks anywhere.



      • kennyrb
        Posted January 7, 2014 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

        “One can posit all sorts of multiverse ways in which that might meaningfully be real.”

        I’m not a physicist so I would be interested in an example or explanation.

        • Posted January 7, 2014 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

          I’m no physicist either, but a large part of it comes down to questions of how you define “matter.” If it’s nuclear atomic matter such as we’re familiar with, then all you need is some other form of “stuff” that’s perhaps not even atomic at all but instead more akin to the ancient elementary model of earth, wind, fire, and water. When you go down that route, whatever that “stuff” is clearly doesn’t have to be arranged in any form you yourself are capable of imagining.

          On the other hand, one could reasonably take a higher-level definition such that certain basic principles must logically hold, however they’re represented. In order for there to be motion or change there must be something logically equivalent to stuff and not-suff (and, presumably, different kinds of stuff) that can be assembled in different ways, and there would also have to be at least one axis of freedom for the stuff to move about in (and presumably multiple axes). When you get to that point, you can start drawing logical mappings between such realities and ours, including geometry — even if the expressions in the two are radically different from each other. With this sort of perspective, the stuff that’s clearly not matter-as-we-know-it but that behaves in a logically equivalent fashion as matter could reasonably be called matter. From this perspective, the “spiritual bodies” of the souls in the Christian Heaven would be considered equivalent to matter, as would everything else in such an universe.

          It’s all a matter of definition and perspective….



  22. Posted January 7, 2014 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    And religion is clearly on the wane.

    That depends entirely on where you are talking about.

  23. The Rose
    Posted January 7, 2014 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    “[O]ur sense of agency is a remarkable illusion confected by evolution through the arrangement of our neurons [which] may well have been a feature that was evolutionarily advantageous…”

    Care to hazard a guess as to what way? Do you think that, given the ability to make a choice (when it’s crucial), the species would tend to make the wrong choice?

  24. Brian Jeffs
    Posted January 7, 2014 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    “Reason is man’s only means of grasping reality and of acquiring knowledge—and, therefore, the rejection of reason means that men should act regardless of and/or in contradiction to the facts of reality.” Ayn Rand| Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution

  25. Shawn Beaulieu
    Posted January 7, 2014 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    If my reading of The Moral Landscape is correct (which it might not be) Sam doesn’t argue that morality can be objectively quantified independently of subjective values. He says that, given certain elementary values (e.g. well-being), which are necessarily subjective, we can logically infer what else we ought to value, and what types of behavior we ought to condemn. Once a definition for morality is established, actions can be classified as either moral or immoral based on whether they contradict or comport with the established definition.

  26. joneseybonesey
    Posted January 7, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    What Douthat did with Coyne’s offhand remark on the “Self” was simply disingenuous. It didn’t form any substantive basis for Coyne’s thesis, yet Douthat spent a large part of his article dismantling the strawman of Coyne’s “self”, created either by his own misunderstanding, or a willful missing of the point. If Douthat is actually so dense as to think Coyne was talking about some matrix style reality where his physical self actually does not exist, and this is all an illusion, then you’ll need to go deeper than arguing over the soul to explain it to him. The analogy I had in mind is that of someone who suffers from full amnesia. We may perceive that we have an identity that is tied to our “self” but when you have amnesia that former self is essentially gone. You still have the same collection of neurons, though altered, but they can no longer operate in a way that creates the former self. Thus, the self is an illusion. Of course the entire point about “self” was not even really important to the overall argument. Douthat just thought he had a gotcha moment and ran with it without fully considering it.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 7, 2014 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      Or another example: a person suffering from a stroke who has a change in personality.

      • Posted January 7, 2014 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

        No need for anything so dramatic. Just have a few drinks; that should be sufficient evidence.


        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted January 7, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

          Oh that’s the real me you meet when I drink.

          • Posted January 7, 2014 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

            Pleased to meet you, Ms. Hyde!


    • BillyJoe
      Posted January 7, 2014 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

      If you have to go beyond explaining that the “illusion of self” is “the illusion that there is an entity within the brain that controls the brain”, then I think you’re not going to get anywhere.

  27. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 7, 2014 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Much deep thinking about human nature (among other topics) eventually bottoms out at a paradox. (see, e.g., the Münchhausen trilemma) Douthat identifies one such paradox in Jerry’s conception of “the self.” (Whether the “self” in this sense is an evolutionary adaptation or a “spandrel,” I do not think can be said with certainty.) As Jerry explains above, however, for the purpose of acting with “purpose,” we need not remain mired in the paradox of “self.”

    Evolution equips humans with an intuitive grasp of the “golden rule.” (This is evidenced in part, I think, by the existence of a rudimentary form of golden rule behavior among our primate cousins.) From our intuitive understanding of the golden rule, we can reason that the other persons whom we are doing unto have minds with wants and needs the same as our own. From there, we can reason upwards and outwards that all men are born equal and that each is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

    Part of the problem with assigning justifications for our moral conduct is that the part of the brain that does the talking is frequently not the part that does the deciding — the part that determines whether to protect Anne Frank or protest a lynching. Their communication tends to be sporadic, like estranged relations who meet at weddings and funerals, or to decide what to do about Pop now that he can no longer live on his own. It is the part that does the talking, however, that of necessity communicates to the outside world the justifications for an act. Being aware of the reasoning actually employed only dimly — as though through a glass darkly — it reaches for convenient answers, often ones that meet society’s normative expectations. One such reason, frequently encountered, is “God.”

    The best refutation of Douthat’s assertion that this “God” answer is the real justification for moral behavior is the failure of anyone to have met the Hitchens’ Challenge: name a single moral act that can be accomplished by a person of faith, but not by a non-believer.

  28. Posted January 7, 2014 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    I think a lot of Jerry’s comments are right on point, but he falls down in addressing one of Douthat’s criticisms. Douthat points out that eliminative materialism and moral realism are hard to maintain at the same time. As D writes:

    “…if the only real thing is matter in motion, and the only legitimate method of discernment the scientific method, you’ll never get to an absolute “thou shalt not murder” (or “thou shalt risk your life on behalf of your Jewish neighbor”) now matter how cleverly you think and argue.”

    Now, Jerry can respond “I’m not a moral realist” (some of his remarks seem to point this way) or “I’m a non-eliminative materialist” (though he doesn’t seem to lean this way), or he can show (or cite someone who shows) how the two can be reconciled.

    But Jerry hasn’t done any of these, so I think Douthat’s criticism here is valid.

    • Posted January 7, 2014 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

      You’re assuming that Jerry views morality as the same sort of absolute “thou shalt not murder” variety as Douthat portrays it as being.

      While I have no doubt but that Jerry finds murder immoral and horrific, he makes it clear that his reason for such is not because of some sort of top-down dictatorial absolutist position.

      Indeed, his one-sentence summary of what morality is and its origins is flawless:

      I want to live in a society where people are treated fairly and in which, ifI were disadvantaged, people would try to help me.

      That is, morality is a strategy (in the game theory sense of the word) that maximizes your own personal potential for success.

      Most moral absolutists, upon encountering definitions such as this, instantly think that this means that killing and raping and stealing can be “morally” justified with such a definition — which not only could not be further than the truth, it also demonstrates an immaturity unbefitting of even very young children.

      If you’re old enough to know that, as pleasant as it might be for a minute or so to wet your bed rather than get up and go to the bathroom, then you’re also old enough to know that, even if killing your neighbor to steal his wallet might superficially seem like a good way to get some gas money, the costs are so horrific and counterproductive as to literally make the action unthinkable.

      The next step the moral absolutists generally take is to come up with scenarios in which people actually did or plausibly could gain real advantage from immoral behavior, thinking that such an example invalidates the proposal. This fails on two prongs.

      First, the statement is about aggregate expectations. Sure, a few people manage to smoke a pack a day from their teens until their 80s with little ill effects to show for it, but the odds against you being one of those people are vanishingly slim. If you want to maximize your odds and place your best bets, don’t smoke, and don’t try to get away with murder.

      Second, even those who do manage to get away with committing atrocities — certain dictators most notoriously — are doing themselves no large-scale favors. Sure, they manage to parasitize their ways into certain luxuries, but a society unburdened by such diseases will produce even more remarkable treasures and wealth than one in which otherwise-productive members are dead or in fear for their own lives. Kim Jong Un may have it good, but North Korea will never put a man on the moon while his neighbors to the north, the Chinese, are poised to do exactly that.

      So, yeah, if you take Douthat’s fallacious premises and strawmen at face value, of course Jerry’s position is incoherent. But if you pay attention to Jerry’s actual position and claims, it’s actually the only coherent position there is.



      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted January 7, 2014 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

        Yep and in game theory, the more “nice” programs are more successful. So, it makes sense that humans that were more cooperative tended to survive better to reproduce more. Sociopathic societies would be less successful from a evolutionary (reproductive) sense.

        • Posted January 7, 2014 at 3:31 pm | Permalink


          Imagine a primitive society that’s the perfect Christian caricature of a godless immoral society: nobody has any incentive to not be a murdering, raping, thieving asshole, and so everybody goes around taking whatever they want, raping anybody that makes them feel horny, and killing anybody who gets in their way. Never mind how such a society is supposed to arrive in the first place; we’ll either wave a magic wand and <poof /> them into existence, or sprinkle magic de-soulification faery dust over the population.

          Clearly, such a society is going to rip itself asunder in a matter of days, if not hours. The only ones left alive after any period of time will be those who went turtle, and they’ll only survive as long as their stockpiles of supplies last.

          Now, start imagining societies that’re still horrific, but with just barely enough morality to survive to future generations. The members of those societies with the inclination and wherewithal to form mutual-non-aggression self-protection pacts will quickly outcompete the lone wolves. And, guess what? That sort of “you watch my back and I’ll watch yours” is exactly what morality is all about. Hey-presto, morality is essential to lasting society, and individuals have far superior survival odds as moral members of a society.

          Throw in a bit of Darwin, and the more cooperative children will clearly outcompete the more hostile ones; with enough generations, you wind up where we are today, even if you start with the most horrific society you can imagine that doesn’t actually immediately self-destruct.

          Wow. Whodathunkit?



          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted January 7, 2014 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

            Come to think of it, your picture of that sociopathic society made me think that sociopaths survive in our society best by mimicking empaths. It would truly be bedlam if they didn’t have to, so your picture of depravity in that society holds & I’d think the sociopaths would become less and less likely to survive. The reason they may still be around is because of empaths (who give the sociopaths something to do anyway)

            • Posted January 7, 2014 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

              That might be part of the reason why we still have sociopaths, but I think there’re two larger factors at play.

              First, there’s no reason to think that there’s been anywhere near enough time to weed them out. Just a couple generations ago we were massacring each other by the tens of millions ostensibly over ideological and religious differences of opinion. A couple dozen generations ago nobody in the West thought any big deal of genocide of native populations; they were pests needing to be exterminated. As Stephen Pinker has recently documented, it just keeps getting worse the farther back in time you go.

              That’s nowhere near enough time for biological evolution to work its charms, especially since, in these examples, it’s largely the sociopaths who’d be doing the surviving and the not-sociopaths doing the dying. Clearly, though there will be large-scale evolutionary pressures towards civilization and away from barbarity, they’ll be operating at a much larger scale than could possibly manifest itself over the course of recorded history.

              That means that the trend away from sociopathy must be a societal, not a genetic one; we still have sociopaths, but they’re either not given the chance to express their sociopathy the way they did in the past, or their attempts to do so are better thwarted.

              The other factor going on here is that, even in game theory, I don’t think you ever get through evolution to a system without cheaters. Yes, the ideal is a system without cheaters, and the optimal strategy (the one with the best chances for success) for individuals is to not cheat, but it’s not clear that there’s any way to get to such an ideal when starting with a system which already has cheaters. You would need a system that is…ah…intelligently designed, not evolved — and, even then, it’s not clear if the absence of cheaters is guaranteed to be a permanent or long-lived feature.

              Still doesn’t change the fact that we have too many cheaters today, and that you’d have to be a fool to be one of them, of course.



              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 7, 2014 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

                Yep, they will still get in and replicate. Now I’m thinking about Roy Batty again.

              • Posted January 7, 2014 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

                “Like tears in the rain.”


              • Posted January 7, 2014 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

                The amazing thing about that movie is how that one scene presented the “fake” person as having lived a more real and meaningful life than the overwhelming majority of “real” people could ever hope to, and to do so in a way that, with a few short words, created a vast and epic space opera universe at least as grand as Star Wars…and all in a very gritty, un-fantastic, pedestrian setting. It’s storytelling as good as it gets, something that would even have moved Shakespeare and Homer to tears — and not at all what one would superficially expect in an SF dystopian detective manhunt flick.



              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 7, 2014 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

                Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.

                What’s also cool about the book is how the replicants use the emotions of the humans against them by rigging up a device that puts out a signal that elicits overwhelming fear. That particular Philip K Dick work is so great – I think about it often, especially with kepple (because I have a lot around) & how the replicants thought nothing of the kepple of those who had left their apartments while humans were uncomfortable with it.

              • Posted January 7, 2014 at 6:18 pm | Permalink


                Must admit I’m unfamiliar with that term, and Google isn’t being particularly helpful….


              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 7, 2014 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

                That would be because I spelled it wrong – kipple not kepple.

              • Posted January 7, 2014 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

                Ah — I’m still not familiar with the term, but this time Google was able to help out. Thanks!


              • Diane G.
                Posted January 7, 2014 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

                “That might be part of the reason why we still have sociopaths…”

                I suspect we have sociopaths around in proportion to those times sociopathy is adaptive. The ones that become charismatic leaders and can send others to fight, for example, can increase the security/economy/dominance of a given tribe.

                Sociopathy might die out after that mythical day that we all become one tribe.

                Variation is maintained in a population to the extent that it is adaptive.

              • Posted January 8, 2014 at 7:54 am | Permalink

                Yes, and you can also get negative feedback loops such as the one we’re in now. Sociopaths get an upper hand and create a climate of corruption. That opens the door for more sociopaths and it changes the norms in such a way that non-sociopaths have some incentives to engage in sociopathic behavior (bribery, rule avoidance), sometimes just for mere survival.

                That doesn’t change the long term big picture, but it certainly explains the “down” bits of “up and down.” Or, just because the ratchet is set to wind things in a certain direction doesn’t mean that there aren’t slips in the other direction.


              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 8, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

                Sociopaths do very well on our society so I don’t see them dying out. Many sociopaths head corporations, are excellent lawyers and salesmen and generally know how to blend in and not cross lobes that will get them caught.

              • Posted January 8, 2014 at 9:32 am | Permalink

                This is true, but society has a powerful incentive to protect itself from sociopaths. This means we can expect that, over time, being a sociopath will have less and less of an advantage in those situations where it’s currently beneficial, and that sociopaths will have to do more and more to curb their sociopathic behavior. The end result is fewer sociopaths being less successfully sociopathic.

                Not that you nor I will live to see sociopathy distilled to homeopathic proportions, or even that the species itself will; just that that’s clearly where the evolutionary pressures lie.



          • Paul S
            Posted January 7, 2014 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

            “Went turtle”. I can’t wait till I can use that in a conversation.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted January 7, 2014 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

      Or, if the question is strictly limited to “cosmology”: then if the earth were the center of the universe, and the universe were limited to whatever minimum size was necessary to allow the human drama to play out to determine who gets to go to heaven.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted January 7, 2014 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

        This should have posted below, in further reply to Daoud.

      • Posted January 7, 2014 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

        That’s probably a better example. If any of the ancient cosmologies were good and accurate descriptions of reality, that would be strong evidence for the reality of the associated gods — and, in turn, not-bad evidence that those stories accurately reflected the purposes those gods had for us.

        …of course, there’s still the question of whether or not it would be wise or morally right to submit to the dictates and purposes of the gods — cue Euthyphro. But it would at least have provided supportive evidence of the reality of the gods and their purposes (in stark contrast with real reality, which emphatically demonstrates their imaginary and fantastical nature).



  29. Daoud
    Posted January 7, 2014 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Hello, I’ve never been impressed by Ross Douthat’s arguments about any subject. And it’s worth the humour to google “ross douthat on reese witherspoon”.

    I do have one question about Mr. Coyne’s original article which was quoted by Douthat:
    “Cosmology doesn’t give one iota of evidence for a purpose (it could!)…” I am confused by what Mr. Coyne means by the “(it could!)”? Would anyone enlighten me?

    • Posted January 7, 2014 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

      One hyperbolic way would be if the stars, as viewed from Earth, clearly and unambiguously spelled out a message in the written language of your choice declaring such a purpose.

      While that would still leave open the infinite regress questions of where the starwriters got their purpose from, it would be impossible to argue against the purpose inherent in this particular corner of existence.



    • Ken Kukec
      Posted January 7, 2014 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

      Or, perhaps less dramatically, if good folk always prospered, villains always lost, and innocents were never made to suffer. That would at least be three iota of evidence of “purpose.”

    • Daoud
      Posted January 8, 2014 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      Ok, basically saying if god exists, he has had plenty of opportunity to demonstrate it.

  30. Diane G.
    Posted January 8, 2014 at 12:02 am | Permalink

    I do hope the New Republic–or better yet, the NYT–decides to publish this eloquent and thorough response to Douthat.

    • Posted January 8, 2014 at 12:12 am | Permalink

      The New Republic did publish it last night:

      I rewrote it a fair bit to make it suitable for the site. They’ve also picked up two other pieces I wrote (here) in the last week, but I didn’t think it was worth calling attention to them.

      • Diane G.
        Posted January 8, 2014 at 12:33 am | Permalink

        You’re on a roll! I guess I should check things out before I type. 😀

      • Diane G.
        Posted January 8, 2014 at 12:37 am | Permalink

        And you definitely need some WEITians over there responding to the comment so far…bleah.

        • Posted January 8, 2014 at 1:26 am | Permalink

          Yeah, the comments are dire, but I never tell the readers what to do!

          • Diane G.
            Posted January 8, 2014 at 1:32 am | Permalink

            Arrgh, I didn’t mean for it to sound that way–sorry!

            Obviously you can’t herd us cats anyway. My intent was merely to suggest an opportunity, for readers so-inclined.

            • Posted January 8, 2014 at 7:57 am | Permalink

              Yes — agreed!

              I don’t feel any burning desire to keep an eye on TNR for Coyneisms, but I’d love to know when they appear so I can contribute both to page views and the comments.

              Needn’t be any long exposition on your part, Jerry; just a one-liner such as, “The New Republic has picked up my piece on ____ from ____. Those interested, see ____.”



  31. Posted January 8, 2014 at 3:20 am | Permalink

    I can believe that one of Douthat’s point is valid without buying into his theism or his reprehensible divine command ethics: The question how it can make sense to talk of me having a purpose or me reading a book if my self is an illusion is not properly answered with the retort that yes, the self is an illusion but there is still the identifiable physical entity. A rock is also an identifiable physical entity but it does not make itself a purpose or learns anything.

    The only answer that makes sense is therefore the physicalist, naturalist one: the self is not an illusion, instead the self is the physical entity called a human being. The human does not need a soul to have agency because the human has the agency.

    I do not understand why this is simple idea is so roundly rejected:

    That agency is an illusion: there is no little person in my brain that directs the activity of my neurons.

    The claim here is that a human being has no agency unless it has a soul sitting inside it that has the real agency. How is that different from the claim that a human being does not walk somewhere unless it has a soul inside it that does the real walking, or that it does not sleep unless it has a soul inside it that does the real sleeping?

  32. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted January 8, 2014 at 4:48 am | Permalink

    I assume Douthat conceded the “no gaps” view of science, since I see nothing of it in these arguments.

    A win for everyone, since as Carroll notes we do understand the laws underlying everyday life. It is the corners that have the large questions now, and they do not constitute gaps that reach into everyday life.

  33. Posted January 8, 2014 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    I have hesitated to get in on the discussion of morality since my take upon morality may possibly be seen as insulting to some. When I sat at the feet of Canon, the Very Reverend…at university to learn about Moral Philosophy, I upset the plummy-voiced bastard by insisting that upon my experience of life from the bottom, there are two distinct ‘takes’ on morality. The first, believed by Workers, which are the majority, sees morality as a preference. Moral language such as ‘ought’ and ‘should’ were little more than casual preferences dependant upon the the strength of the Worker to enforce those preferences.

    I suspect that many on this site are academics and are therefore temperamentally constrained from any meaningful conversation with a Worker, or still many entertain the fiction that they, themselves are Workers, based upon a false understanding of the poverty of their parents when they were young.

    Morality as enjoyed by the Middle Classes (and the religious) supposes that there are moral absolutes, connected to this material world, either through divine command or through a shared tribal belief of the Middle Classes; a kind of ‘esprit de classe’ that seems so manifestly obvious as to be beyond discussion. Many of the Middle Classes who have been suckered by the social construction of morality go on to use logical possibility to tease it out into a fantastical and complex piece of philosophy; perhaps called ‘Foundationalism’, unaware of they have reinvented polystyrene, – a useful form of academic stuffing.
    JAC’s pragmatism in moral questions is like my own and that of most people. I know; I have lived 40 years in alien lands to study people eye to eye. Alas, it coincides with the morality of great dictators such as Mao, Stalin, and Ceausescu, but where they enacted their vicious morality by force, we believe in an altruistic kind of morality.

    Religious concepts of morality as studied, unfortunately, in universities, are just plain wrong, and part of our task is to roll-up religion and all its tentacles, even though they have a respectable place in philosophy classes today. I never had the opportunity to call my old Ethics teacher a certified loon, nor to accuse that university of being little more than a monastery, but I am glad of the company of clever people today who might take my side, and not his.

    Many of you have reason to be grateful that you did not try for an education fifty years ago, when religious concepts dominated teaching. But for those trapped in the Social Sciences today, it is a devilish option, especially since many of you believe that you can reform it from inside; a fantasy called ‘internal patching’. But you cannot. Best to start to accept that all the Social Sciences, in all their manifest colourfulness, and all their pretences of scientific methods, – are delusions of the highest order; closely paralleling the religions; and like the religions, are dependent on a self-selected group within society who have started their intellectual life upon some demonstrably false assumptions concerning human belief and behaviour. Social Sciences Faculties are the bible colleges of the present day. You are in a cult. Get out, while you can, and go and study biology.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted January 8, 2014 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

      And so the Rococo-Marxist pot accuses the Rococo-Marxist kettle of black-i-ness.

  34. Posted January 8, 2014 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    The idea that God controls every atom in the universe does not seem to leave much room to free will either.

    But, getting back to materialism. It does seem that free will, “self”, consciousness, and other mind-related stuff are “illusions” – a convenient way to describe complex arrangements and interactions between trillions of neurons. But then, we cannot say that these concepts are material, can we? Is “material” same as “real”? Does “immaterial” mean “non-existing”? Can we say that “idea exists”? And if we can say that about idea, why cannot other “immaterial” stuff be called “real” and “existing”?

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] complicate things a little more Ross Douthat and Rod Dreher have gotten in on the act, with Coyne responding to Douthat – this is a bit far afield but makes for interesting reading if you take the time.  Adam […]

%d bloggers like this: