Expendable?

(Would it be) be ethical for our species to be sacrificed for the unimaginably vast happiness of some superbeings? Provided that we take the time to really imagine the details (which is not easy), I think the answer is clearly “yes.” There seems no reason to suppose that we must occupy the highest peak on the moral landscape.

I came across this quote from Sam Harris in a review of his new book The Moral Landscape, and I found it startling.   I’ve never understood why some people are attracted to atheism.  Agnosticism, provided it springs from honest doubt, I can understand.   But it seems to me that to claim with certainty that there is no God is to make a religious claim, given that the claim is unproveable and must therefore rest on faith.  Atheism then, at least to my small mind, must derive from ignorance, arrogance or stubbornness.  I include “ignorance” in that list because I have come across several folks in my life who called themselves atheists without understanding the meaning of the word.  Most were merely agnostic and one or two were theists who rejected Christian orthodoxy.  But for those who understand what it is to be an atheist and still claim the title, my sense is that they so strongly want there to be no God that they make a leap of faith into atheism and they hold their ground out of stubborness and arrogance. 

Which brings me back to Mr. Harris and his remarkable comment on Nozick’s “utility monster.”  Is humanity (along with everything else on our planet) so devoid of intrinsic worth that all we know could ethically be sacrificed to bring happiness to some “superbeings”?  And is this amazing proposition not just possibly true, but clearly true? 

I admit that I have not read any of the series of best-sellers being cranked out these days by the school of militant atheism.  Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and others have certainly discovered a product that sells.  It seems that lots of folks want to be given scientific reasons to be atheists–as if atheism is something that can be proven scientifically.  From what I’ve seen of the work of Dawkins and Hitchens, their weapon of choice is not something like the intellectually valid Problem of Evil, for example, but rather the undeniable fact that the stories of the Old Testament are often shocking and nonsensical in the contemporary world.  Nevermind that the truth of that proposition does not negate the existence of God–not even the particular God Yahweh.  But I suppose an honest assessment of their work would require that I actually read it, and since I haven’t done that, any more on that topic will have to wait. 

I am confident, however, that the vast majority of theists and agnostics would agree with me that there is no imaginable scenario in which our world might be ethically sacrificed for the happiness of alien superbeings, at least not on the grounds that we might not occupy a sufficiently high peak on the moral landscape.  While nearly all of us would acknowledge that there is no greater love than laying down one’s life for another, we would not accept the notion that humanity might be expendable for the utility of some species that is “superior” to our own and whose moral code would trump our very existence.

But it seems to me that Mr. Harris’ conclusion is intellectually honest if premised on his atheism.  If there is no God whose existence binds the universe together, if there is no love which transcends our material existence, if the imago dei is not imprinted on humanity, then whatever importance we attach to our “species” is a mere animalistic survival mechanism or the wanderings of minds which haven’t evolved to a purely precise and rational operation.  And why such a world-view could be attractive to intelligent human beings is more mysterious to me than any theological issue could ever be.

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4 comments on “Expendable?

  1. Ian says:

    A lot of these are points I’ve been trying to get across to people for years. Kudos for summing it up all so well.

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  2. oldancestor says:

    Perhaps I can offer a slightly different way to look at the atheist ‘worldview,’ for lack of a better word.

    It’s not that we “want” there to be no god or that we “want” a humans to be merely animals subject to the same impulses and amorality as the rest of nature. It’s that we can’t force ourselves to believe in god just because it comforts us. If our observations tell us the universe and nature is incompatible with that which is described in the bible and other theological writings, then it is.

    Theists often ask, ‘But why do you want to think those things when you can experience the love of Christ and be saved?”

    I can’t invent a worldview that seems false to me just because it feels good. If my rational observations tell me the existence of god is extremely unlikely, that’s what my observations tell me. I’m not trying to talk you out of your faith, because if we’re all happy for whatever reasons and we don’t hurt anyone else, the world is a better place. I do want to ask you a question, though: Have you ever stepped back and tried to evaluate your beliefs from a neutral perspective or asked if your beliefs fill a psychological need? Serious theologians have done so, some of whom decided to become atheists and others who remained faithful.

    I also want to address the comment that atheists are arrogant or stubborn. I hear this about once a day, it seems. I am not offended by it. I hope, in the interest of fostering greater understanding, you will legitimately consider what I have to say.

    Most atheists (including Dawkins… I know, I’ve read most of his books) do not say, as an absolute, that God Does Not Exist. We say that it is so highly unlikely that god exists, we live our lives as if he does not.

    Example: I tell you that there are a race of unicorns living inside the moon. You say, while that is not strictly impossible, it is so improbably that I shall go ahead and say you are wrong.

    Are you being stubborn or arrogant? No, you are reasonably asserting that unicorns in the moon are not a valid thing to believe in. If you believed every such claim I made, you’d be foolish.

    Now, what is more likely, unicorns in the moon or an omnipotent god who created an incomprehensibly vast universe, waiting 15 billion years to put people on one speck of dust planet, and, during the period of about 500 BC to 1500 AD visited the Earth many times, ordered people around, performed miracles, rose from the dead, etc, and then, with the advent of modern science, suddenly stopped showing up and interfering. Nevertheless, this god can hear all of our personal thoughts and cares deeply about what each and every one of us is thinking. Not enough to save most of us (Atheists, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, etc) from the fires of hell, though.

    If asked to place those two options, the unicorns and the described god, on a probability chart, in order, I’m going with unicorns in the moon first.

    Same deal, now take the god and measure it against: Humans are intelligent beings who seek understanding. Long ago, they lacked scientific knowledge and method, so they invented explanations for bad things: Supernatural gods. They borrowed god myths from eachother, attributed events they could not understand to deities, and so on. Even today, humans have a concept of death that other animals don’t. We fear it, and we fear the dangers of the living world, just as our ancestors did. Gods provide a cosmic security blanket and an all-powerful, always right father figure to look up to and ease us through times of stress. Gods make us feel better on a psychological level.

    Occam’s Razor – the principle that the simplest explanation is usually the right one, says that the second choice is the right one.

    Again, I’m not trying to deconvert you. I’m just explaining why it’s not arrogant or stubborn to disbelieve in god. I, and most atheists I’m aware of, including Dawkins, admit that we could be wrong. That’s not absolutism.

    I also add that Dawkins is arrogant not because of his atheism but because he’s just an arrogant guy. If he were a movie director or an architect, he’d come off the same way.

    Thanks for listening and allowing me to offer a counterpoint on your blog.

    Peace.

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  3. joeywahoo says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Oldancestor–I appreciate your well-stated and respectful response. You’ve likely engaged theists on this subject many times, so no doubt you expect the usual responses to your arguments. But I still see two primary flaws in the arguments. First, even if the argument truly established the improbability of the existence of God (and I don’t think it does),it is incapable of proving the nonexistence of God. One who holds that the existence of God is highly improbable, but not impossible, is merely an agnostic, not an atheist, at least as I understand the terms.

    Secondly, the evidence that you offer for the improbability of the existence of God (the supposed incompatibility of the Bible with human observations about nature and the universe, the historical narratives of the Bible, the “fires of hell,” etc.) are merely criticisms of the doctrinal orthodoxy of certain practitioners of a particular expression of theism. The improbability of the “fires of hell” is not an argument against the existence of God. It is just an argument against the “fires of hell.”

    The argument that God is a product of a human psychological need for him is circular. I might just as well question whether atheists’ denial of God comes from some psychological need they perceive.

    By the way, as you probably know, Occam was a theist and a theologian.

    I find it interesting that Mr. Harris does not categorically deny the possibility that a “superbeing” might exist to whom we humans would owe a moral duty of sacrifice. Think about it.

    You write, “humans have a concept of death that other animals don’t.” Do you wonder why that might be the case?

    I do appreciate your counterpoint and thank you for offering it.

    peace

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  4. oldancestor says:

    Just to comment on your second point, my view is that the more one buys into the specific dogma or belief set of a given religion, the less probable the god depicted becomes. In other words, it’s easier to argue from a deist’s perspective than a theist’s perspective.

    I’m sure you anticpate my response, but I believe humans can conceive of death and future consequences because our brains have developed to the point that we are able to.

    I can’t specifically comment on Harris’s view because I haven’t read the work you were discussing. He might be a nut case for all I know.

    Thanks for the thoughtful response.

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