Friday, July 08, 2005

Mere Stupidity, We Hope

"Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity." I don't know who originated this maxim, but is seems like a good one to follow. Otherwise, you end up attacking people's motives rather than their reasoning. I must confess, however, that I sometimes find it rather hard to stick to this maxim when I encounter folks from the political right.

Take a post on evolution by Leon H. at

If atheistic evolution is true, and there is no God, then a number of logical conclusions are also immediately assumed to be true:

It is first immediately recognized that physical matter is all that exists. As such, humans are neither unique or special in the cosmos, as they are merely matter arranged in a specific way. The implications of this are staggering, from both a philosophical and political point of view. This means:

  1. Humans are no more special or worthy of protection than any other species of animal, since we are are merely matter arranged in a different structure, and our existence here is just a matter of random chance.
  2. Humans are no more special or worthy of protection than any species of plant, for the same reasons listed above.
  3. Humans are no more special or worthy of protection than inanimate objects such as rocks, since the only principle difference between us are the proportionate amounts of Carbon, Hydrogen, and various other elements.

If structure doesn't matter, then Leon should be happy to exchange a collection of diamonds for an equal quantity of graphite. After all, both are composed of carbon. The only difference is the structure, and Leon doesn't think that structure matters.

In fairness, Leon does leave himself an out: his assertion that structure doesn't matter is predicated on the non-existence of God. But is he really saying that the only reason he wouldn't exchange diamonds for graphite is that God tells him not to? Does he really think that an atheist would make the exchange?

Continuing directly:

Think that goes too far? Observe the logical conclusion reached by noted humanist Linus Pauling (2001):

Dr. Albert Schweitzer believes that not only man but also other forms of life should be included in the field of our concern. He has expressed this belief in his principle of Reverence for Life. I would like to go further: I advocate the principle of Reverence for the World.

This is a wonderful world in which we live. Yet some of its wonders are being annihilated, destroyed, so that our children's children will never be able to experience them. I do not like to think of the beautiful minerals, beautiful crystals, that are being removed from the ground and destroyed in order to make more copper wire or uranium rods... There will never be a second crop of minerals.

Instead of the principle of maximizing human happiness, I prefer the principle of minimizing the suffering of the world (all emphasis mine).

Before dismissing Pauling as a fringe atheistic evolutionist, stop and consider whether or not his conclusion is valid, when man is reduced merely to his material self.

Since Leon doesn't provide a citation for the quote, let me note that it is from an article which is available on the web and which was first published in 1961 (not 2001).

The quote doesn't support Leon's position. First, Pauling may have been an atheist, but Schweitzer was not, and there is not a big gap between Pauling's views and Schweitzer's "Reverence for Life." Pauling extends the principle to the inanimate, but so did Schweitzer. According to one web page, "Schweitzer said the ethical person is reluctant to shatter ice crystals gleaming in the sun." So Pauling's atheism is a red herring.

Second, Pauling doesn't claim that there is no difference between the value of a human being and the value of a plant or inanimate object. Being reluctant to shatter ice crystals or to mine minerals doesn't mean that these actions are ethically equivalent to murder. In fact, Pauling justifies his concern about preserving mineral crystals by referring to our "children's children." This approach makes future generations of humans more fundamental than mineral crystals. In short, Pauling would have rejected the proposition that Leon claims is supports.

Continuing directly:

Further, if atheistic evolution is true, we are doing a great disservice to ourselves by keeping the weakest members of our society alive and affording them legal protection. From Darwin himself, in The Descent of Man:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive comonly exhibit a vitorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process off elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skills to save the life of everyone to the last moment. THere is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

If Darwin's logic sounds familiar, it should. I'd tell you where you've probably heard it more recently, but I don't want to get Godwin's law invoked on me.

The quote is from chapter 5 of The Descent of Man.

Leon doesn't mention Hitler by name, but he is clearly suggesting a that Darwin would have supported Hitler's program. He doesn't mention that Darwin rejected forcible eugenics in his next paragraph:

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil. We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind...

There has been over a century of scientific progress since this was written. Leon claims that keeping the weakest members of our society alive does a "great disservice." I don't know whether that is true, and Darwin's writings don't shed any light on the issued because they don't reflect the current state of scientific research.

Leon then makes a point which is valid as far as it goes:

Further, if atheistic evolution is true, then there will be no accounting after this life is over for how one's life has been lived. In other words, Stalin, Hugh Hefner, and Mother Theresa all receive the same recompense - absolutely nothing. What is the value of choosing one path over the other, except to satisfy one's own personal desire?

What is missing from this is the recognition that people don't always make decisions based on the hope of a reward in this life or the next. Sometimes people do something simply because they believe that it is the right thing to do.

These are a few of the starting points when discussing where throwing God out of the equation leaves man in the philosophical and political sense. I could go on by noting that if atheistic evolution is true, Marx was correct and Locke was wrong, there is no justification for condemning the Nazis, and so on and so on - but I hope that the point has been driven home adequately that one's metaphysical view does have real life political, philosophical and actual consequences.

This is getting long, so I won't bother to analyze this paragraph.

It is no surprise, therefore, that when a passive-aggressive troll such as our good friend DS comes to RedState in an attempt (as he frankly admitted at dKos) to proselytize us all, he does so under the guise that he is "only talking science" and simply seeking to deal with the superstition of the religious, when in fact he is attacking the very pillar of the government of our country, much less our party.

If DS is really "only talking science," then he isn't talking about atheistict evolution; he's just talking about evolution, which is compatible with many strains of Christianity. Leon's objections to atheistic evolution are mainly objections to atheism.

Leon doesn't say what he means by "the very pillar of the government of our country," but I think the gist of his meaning is clear. He is saying that atheism is undermining our nation. This has a McCarthyesque ring to it. Leon may have a legitimate beef with DS, but his attack is sweeping enough to hit all atheists.

Let's now have an honest discussion of where atheistic evolution leads us, shall we?

For this to be an honest discussion, one must believe that Leon is guilty of honest stupidity rather than malicious propaganda. But there is an intermediate possibility. Perhaps he is guilty of something closer to intellectual lazyness. Maybe he's smart enough that he could see the flaws in his arguments if he worked on it, but he finds them congenial enough that he doesn't try.


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