I did not always feel this way, of course. There was once a time I naively trusted that thinkers with impressive credentials and appointments necessarily dealt in complex ideas-- ones thought of so infrequently as to justify the existence of a class of specialists devoted to their study. Not so. In fact, I see, the bigger the academic, the smaller the idea, in many cases-- and now I'm afraid I must properly formulate "Josh's Iron Law of Academic Respectability," which I here commit to paper for the first time. It is as follows: "The extent to which a scholar is well-known and highly regarded outside of her or his own discipline varies inversely to the extent to which she or he has made a significant and original contribution within that discipline." It is the historians, philosophers, sociologists whom we, as lay people, have heard of, who have done the least interesting work in their own departments. They write the really bad species of this genus.
There is another type of the "single, obvious idea" book written by the "senior academic," however, which is rather good -- the one which reiterates its single, obvious idea because that single idea is in fact obvious, and is the best we can do, but is widely disregarded for all that. Perhaps one still doesn't have to actually read the book-- but it should be treated with greater respect.
The boring and ploddingly self-evident is always to be prized above the crafty, the devious, and the ingenious. This is especially true when it concerns the really foundational issues in metaphysics and ethics, which can never be settled one way or another by empirical evidence or on the basis of deductive tautologies, since no "information" can come to us in these fields of inquiry which could then be deductively analyzed. This means we have to trust in subjective beliefs, to some extent. We don't like to do this, however, because it makes it rather difficult to decisively defeat our intellectual adversaries, who have different subjective beliefs. The fact that we want to decisively defeat them (with good reason, at times-- there are some very noxious ideas in this world which deserve to be combatted), means that we will always be prey to charmers who promise the means to do so. Some of those charmers can be very convincing, meanwhile, because they can be very clever. Tragically, it is often the brightest philosophers who get the most tanged in falsehoods, because the range of what we can actually establish in the fields of foundational metaphysics and metaethics is so limited, and keeping within this small range is bound to be terribly boring to the brightest. The clever mind beats its wings against this cage; it will even try to convince itself, in fact, that it has escaped, when it hasn't.
So brightness may lead to wrongness. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education paraphrases an essay by Daniel Farber as follows: "'brilliant' legal theories are automatically less sound [...] than theories that don’t so much unsettle the way of things." The point applies more broadly. The history of philosophy is full of arguments which are perfectly ingenious, but which one can immediately sense to be wrong, for all that. Trust that instinct-- the reasons which underlie it will become evident to you in good time.
The boring and ploddingly self-evident is a safeguard not only against the clever and malignant, but also against the completely fraudulent-- the big philosophical faker who conjures with metaphysical incantations but can't answer the simple questions put to him by the dependable and uninteresting. This sort of quack has colonized an entire continent and whole fields of scholarship. He or she especially preys upon rubes like me who toil in institutions like divinity schools-- places where we both have a crying need for philosophy and a toxic relationship with the more established purveyors of that medicine. For the untutored ministry student who is spurned for his vocation by the Analytic philosophers who might have saved him much wasted effort, scoundrels and cheats lie in wait-- "under the gas lamps luring the farm boys," as Carl Sandburg wrote of the city where my own brain was first seduced by metaphysical speculation. Heidegger... Hegel... -- one thinks "this can't all be nonsense!-- if only because something apparently spurred these men to go on putting one word after another on the page-- they must have meant something by it all, otherwise whence this compulsion?" So the ministerial fruit ripens for the fall.
I say all this by way of introducing Ronald Dworkin's recent book, Religion Without God, which seems to be one of these single-idea books, and though I haven't read it, for reasons stated above, I am tempted to think it is of the second, good variety, because its message, while simple, seems to me entirely correct-- boringly apt and predictably right on the money. I especially suspect this because it is already upsetting the clever.
According to a review by Michael Rosen in The Nation, Dworkin argues that human rights-- and morality more generally-- haven't been, and can't possibly be, proven by the methods of the natural sciences. He therefore calls his own belief system a "religious" one, because it rests ultimately on faith in the objective, independent value of rights. (Whether Dworkin thinks all "morality" can be reduced to a concept of "rights" is not clear from this review, so I won't press on that point. Let's just assume for now he means one by the other.) Dworkin's is a subjective faith, but not an relative one. The meaning of the faith act in this instance is that it affirms a belief in something universally and absolutely-- even though it cannot provide a rationale for it that could convince the non-believer.
There it is: that's the argument. What could possibly be duller or less satisfactory than this? It is a tremendous cop-out, surely, to retreat to "faith" in a work of this sort. "Faith," along with "Intuition" and "Common Sense," is the last refuge of philosophic scoundrels -- all this unholy trinity can really amount to is a restatement of the conclusion one originally set out to defend. "I believe because I have faith" is a tautology -- one given the appearance of profundity, perhaps, by a semantic sleight-of-hand. Surely one cannot solve a philosophical problem by doing what Dworkin is trying to do: waving an academic scepter, that is, and saying "thus it is so." (And Dworkin spake: "Let there be rights, and there were rights, and He saw that they were good.")
These and other sound objections to such devices come to mind, and Michael Rosen proceeds to voice many of them well in his review. He writes:
"[I]f values exist as 'fully independent,' how can we have access to them? As Dworkin admits, there are no experiments we can conduct to confirm their existence. Dignity [...] will not be detected by any scientist. On the contrary, the realm of value is 'self-certifying,' so the only evidence for the existence of values is the truth of the things that we say about them. And the evidence for that truth is what, exactly—that we agree about values? But disagreement about values is where we came in."This is pretty insurmountable.
But for all that, I'm not sure anyone can actually do any better than Dworkin. As disappointing as his reach may be, I'm not sure we have the philosophic tools at our disposal to go any further. Until Rosen can outpace him, then, it is hard to justify making criticisms of this sort. It is always easier to unravel a philosophical argument than to sew one, after all, and Rosen pragmatically avoids doing the latter. The closest he comes to offering his own standpoint is when he contrasts utilitarianism favorably with Richard Rorty's relativism:
"Yet there is a very important difficulty with this 'subjectivist' position. When ruthless utilitarian aggregators defend their view, they can justify it by pointing to the way it leads to the advancement of something that is evidently good (happiness) or the avoidance of something bad (suffering). It means that there is an immediate, intuitively plausible response when utilitarians are asked what kinds of values underpin their moral theory. Yet what justification can be given by someone who rejects that view?"Rosen is, again, talking about Rorty here, not Dworkin, and Dworkin's stance differs from Rorty's in crucial ways. The former actually holds rights to have objective reality, for instance, whereas the latter thinks they are simply "the way we do things here." But the two thinkers are nonetheless similar in that they both fail to provide foundations for their moral system-- i.e. reasons explicable to all people, regardless of whether they are prepared to agree at the outset with the moral system or not. And in the absence of such reasons, why should we be expected to accept either Rorty's system or Dworkin's? This appears to be Rosen's point, and his reference to utilitarianism suggests that the latter can at least provide reasons in a way that the other systems cannot.
But can it really? Rosen here states that happiness is "evidently good" and suffering is "evidently bad," but this is, of course, just as ultimately baseless a claim as Dworkin's or Rorty's. Where is this "evidence" that is alluded to? Can you actually prove that happiness is good, objectively, and suffering bad? Even if you could, would it show anything more than that my happiness is good, and yours may be a matter of indifference to me?
The point is that I suspect utilitarianism too boils down to a faith commitment, under pressure, whether its votaries own up to it or not.
Looking at such ex-naturalists cast upon the shore of a scientifically inexplicable morality and floundering there, theists are bound to gloat (and the rest of us can't say we haven't always done the same thing when we get half a chance). In a rather smug recent interview, for instance, Alvin Plantinga asserted that atheists plainly have the worse package of arguments and simply cling to their unbelief out of wishful thinking and sentimentalism. One gets the feeling he is rather relishing the chance to round these old arguments on the secular foe who invented them.
And indeed, the atheist was always wrong to assert that the reasons for her unbelief were entirely objective. However, and this is the point -- the theist can't pretend she is in any better position in this regard. The belief in God, especially a specific sort of god, can only be arrived at by a subjective faith commitment very much like Dworkin's (which is why the latter calls his outlook "religious" after all). Dworkin's defense of transcendent ideas and the objective reality of values may not be an especially interesting one. More: it may be boring. But it is the best one can do within the realm of philosophy-- which is why I wasted so much breath defending the value of boringness and obviousness at the outset. The theist can't do any better-- she too has faith, she just places it in something distinct from Dworkin's natural rights.
Plantinga would deny this. He would say that Christian belief is not subjective or dependent on a mere act of faith, but derives rather from a combination of special knowledge, gifted to the elect, and the use of reason. In the interview above, Plantinga speaks of the "sensus divinatis," a concept he derives from Calvin, which is supposed to be a revelatory sort of knowledge reserved to the believer-- knowledge in which one experiences directly the reality of God.
This is a coherent theory, even if it is likely to strike many readers (and myself) as intuitively implausible; the trouble with it, however, is that it remains only one theory among many which account for the same phenomena-- how is one to distinguish between them unless by subjective faith commitments like Dworkin's?
Sonorous Latin phrases aside, Plantinga is after all really just affirming a personal faith experience. And I, for example, have not had such an experience. Now, all of this could be accounted for in one of several ways-- let's pick two. The first explanation is that Plantinga has actually been gifted with special knowledge, and special certainty, and the fact that I have not is merely a sign that I am not among those predestined by God for salvation. (Plausible enough: if there is such a class of person, I have no illusions that I'd be among it. Of whatever earthly enjoyment I get from writing blasphemous posts like this one the blessed shall say: "He has had his reward.") A second possibility, however, is that Plantinga merely thinks he has had an experience of divine knowledge due to some psychological factor, and that I have not because we have different psychologies. The point is that either one of these two explanations accounts adequately for the same set of facts. We have no special reason to favor one over the other. The fact that Plantinga favors the former therefore must reflect a subjective faith commitment on his part, like Dworkin's.
Plantinga has a few more rabbits in his hat, of course-- those having to do with rational "proofs" or-- more modestly-- "arguments" concerning God's existence. He dutifully unsheathes the "fine-tuning" argument, for instance, which is merely the latest reboot of the "argument from design," but is much preferred by trendy ID folks for its facility with scientific jargon. Plantinga gives the abridged version: "Scientists tell us that there are many properties our universe displays such that if they were even slightly different from what they are in fact, life, or at least our kind of life, would not be possible. The universe seems to be fine-tuned for life."
The trouble with this argument is that the universe predates us by quite a long stretch. One can say plausibly, for this and other reasons, that the universe was not fine-tuned for life so much as life was fine-tuned for the universe-- because it had to be, because it originated in this universe and therefore had to conform to its laws. There is nothing surprising or implausible about this unless we believe that there is something intrinsically valuable and special about life -- particularly intelligent life -- which would make it striking that there is such a neat alignment between the universe and this uniquely valuable, uniquely special thing. But the reality of this value and specialness -- the reality of objective, transcendent values -- is precisely the sort of thing that is meant to be proven by the fine-tuning argument, so it can't be used as a prop of that argument. To argue for it by using it as an assumption of the argument is circular reasoning.
Remember what I said above about ingenious arguments that are nonetheless clearly mistaken, even on the surface? I have the unnerving sense in reading Plantinga of being confronted with an intellect evidently superior to my own, but which is nonetheless wrong-- and in a rather obvious sort of way. It is unnerving because I feel I must be missing something. John Updike captures this feeling well in a scene from Roger's Version in which the characters debate "fine-tuning," and which incidentally features a quite satisfactory refutation of the "fine-tuning" argument. (Updike, for all his faults, is one of the few literary chroniclers I know of to have thought it worthwhile to set down the subjective feelings of people engaged in theological argument, and I love him for it):
"I took in breath to make some obvious objections [...] It would take more of an attack than I could mount to shake him. I set down my pipe and picked up from my desktop a pencil [...] and focused upon its point, saying, 'I do worry a bit about this concept of probability. In a sense, every set of circumstances is highly improbable. It is highly improbable, for instance, that a particular spermatozoon out of the millions my father ejaculated that day [...] would make its way to my mother's egg and achieve my particular combination of genes [...] but some such combination [...] was likely, and mine as probable as any other. No?"(Don't worry that you've missed anything in those ellipses-- just Updike's notorious "descriptions"-- about the shape of the pencil, etc.)
At any rate: so much for "fine-tuning."
All arguments for God or transcendent values-- or even for the existence of reality-- will eventually fall back on statements of faith -- boring and utterly unsatisfactory statements of faith at that, like Dworkin's.
We may be tempted to say, given this is the case, that we should simply adopt an extreme moral agnosticism-- nihilism, basically-- since most of us agree that when we lack reasons for a belief, we should cease to hold it. We might be tempted to reply to this: "You monster! Think of all the dreadful things you will now do or allow others to do, because you have abandoned morality." But this would not really be an argument, would it, so much as personal invective? It would, in fact, be little more than intellectual hostage-taking: "You must believe in transcendent values," it seems to be saying, "or so-and-so gets it!"
Doesn't this seem a rather immoral way to argue for morality? John Stuart Mill has a quite excellent line about this in his polemic against William Hamilton, who was arguing for free will because in its absence, he said, we would have no grounds for believing in moral responsibility. Says Mill in reply:
"[T]he practice of bribing the pupil to accept a metaphysical dogma, by the promise or threat that it affords the only valid argument for a foregone conclusion—however transcendently important that conclusion may be thought to be—is not only repugnant to all the rules of philosophizing, but a grave offence against the morality of philosophic enquiry."I am tempted to hand the round to Mill on point of style alone. Ever since I read this I've been looking for a chance to wedge it into this blog. One wonders, however, if it is really possible to avoid this sort of hostage-taking entirely. It would effectively involve abandoning all "foregone conclusions," after all, including the notion of the intrinsic value of morality. Yet even Mill refers to "the morality of philosophic enquiry" here. Whence this morality, if not from some source of value accessed by faith? Could Mill show us by proof or sense data its origin?
There is a good chance that real moral nihilism is unattainable-- inconceivable, in fact. You will notice that my little argument for moral nihilism above included the lines: "when we lack reasons for a belief, we should not hold it"-- which involves, of course, a "should"-- a normative claim in favor of the intrinsic value of honesty and intellectual integrity, and therefore of morality of some sort. Rearing nihilism on such a foundation is self-defeating.
Even someone like Nietzsche, who strained after amoralism with great earnestness and sincerity (which are --ahem -- ethical categories) could only frame his arguments in moral terms. His books are replete with tears shed for "the strong," whose health and vitality are being sapped unfairly by "the weak." Yet if these "strong" are actually so victimized, are they not in fact "the weak"? And why should we care if they are victimized if not for that beastly compassion which Nietzsche sees as the life-draining succubus of European civilization?
Morality of some sort is unavoidable. Of course, this doesn't tell us much about which morality we should favor, but it does suggest that the formation of subjective faith commitments -- including those having to do with ethics-- is simply a feature of human life, and not something that can be got around-- or that only our benighted intellectual opponents are guilty of, whether they be theists or atheists.
Dworkin, it seems, is saying nothing more than this. It is a very boring and disappointing and familiar conclusion. But that doesn't mean it is not the right one-- in fact, it should suggest that it is.