In an age of internet memes, when everything is meta, it is hard to explain what metaphysics is.
One could say that it is a branch of philosophy that had its votes taken away from it by Kant. One could say that it is the escape hatch of the religiously vague who are unable to confront precision. One could say that “a map is not a territory” and when you ponder that you are doing metaphysics.
Now one group of people who really don’t like metaphysics are the newish atheists. They don’t necessarily know they don’t like metaphysics of course, since reading books is less efficient than watching YouTube videos. It also involves listening to someone for eight hours instead of visiting their blogs and clicking onwards if they say anything you disagree with.
Lest you want to click onwards right now to another fundamentalist’s blog, please realise I was just joking. Us Christians have so little we can be attempt to be funny about, leave us to our strange predilection for bound paper.
What I mean to say is that the positive naturalism that one encounters with contemporary atheism is probably mostly incompatible with any serious metaphysics. If matter is all there is and matter is all that matters, that leaves little space for ontology (the philosophy of being) and epistemology (the philosophy of knowing) or indeed pure metaphysical thinking. Ontology just becomes empirical science and epistemology gets lost in explanations developed by evolutionary neuroscience.
There is something wonderfully simple about all this which is one of the reasons why this brand of atheism is so popular. Whatever logical rigor is required can be picked up from a few wikipedia articles (I personally suspect this is their favourite) and appeals can be made to “common sense” reason that have been the mainstay of dominant schools of thought since time or minds or souls or history or something significant began.
The thing is though, metaphysics is a hard habit to break. The best argument one can come up with explaining its stubborn refusal to slide off the stage to allow empirical reason the spotlight uncontested is that the human desire to provide explanations for phenomena they don’t understand is instinctive.
That argument is the best in the sense that you could flesh it out and it would do the job and put a lot of minds at rest. It is not the best however in that it just moves the problem outside the periphery of rhetoric we are comfortable with in today’s culture. We don’t have words that come easy to point out the error so we don’t get troubled by the error.
The error is that we still have to explain why the desire for explanations, even irrational ones, is instinctive.
All this is leading to something. Recently a movement has emerged called Atheism+ which is a move to tie atheism with “social justice” narrowly understood in terms that only really make sense in America. The proponents certainly don’t think of social justice in terms that would be coherent globally, although they assume the justice they intend to propagate has a global authority.
As a Reformed preacher one could have a field day examining this very human desire from atheists to root what began as an intellectual movement in tangible, creditable good works. One could wax lyrical about Man’s damnable good works. As a blogger, I am free to be a mean, catty bastard (in fact it’s almost the job description) and so I could mock people cruelly for daring to share their less than perfect ideas with the world. I hope to escape both temptations.
I just want to draw out the metaphysical content of Nugent’s manifesto. The third goal of ethical atheism is:
3. Promoting natural compassion and ethics.
It is important to actively promote natural compassion and ethics, because ideas about supernatural gods corrupt our attempts to think and act morally.
If you disbelieve in gods, it necessarily follows that you also disbelieve that we get our morality and ethics from gods. This is a significant approach to a central question about life, in a world where most people believe the opposite.
Morality and ethics are products of our brains, part of the natural evolution of generations of living together as sentient beings. They are based on natural ideas such as compassion, reciprocity and justice.
We should seek to minimize suffering and maximize flourishing of sentient beings, and to treat ourselves and other sentient beings fairly and justly. We should challenge corruptions of natural morality and ethics, that are based on supernatural dogmas.
So the first clause is classic Hitchens and classically soft. Even if the concept “supernatural” can be defined in any sense that would carry weight, it is obviously a big ask to be convincing that such ideas corrupt our attempts to think and act morally. After all, what is corruption if there is not a standard against which we deviate? We’re back into metaphysics.
His second clause is really interesting and I love his phrase “significant approach”. That is a significant claim he is making. Very good.
But then he unfurls all kinds of metaphysics on our ass again. Morality and ethics are products (a revealing metaphor) of our brain. They are part of natural evolution but they are based (indicating a concept prior to natural evolution?) on “natural ideas such as compassion, reciprocity and justice.”
Quite honestly, this sounds Roman Catholic.
That previous sentence should reveal to you that I am not attacking this manifesto as worthless or wrong or dangerous. I am not attacking it at all. I’m all for ethical atheism since it is much better than its alternative. I am as in favour of Atheism+ as I am of Google+.
All I am trying to point out is how profoundly metaphysical these claims are. Invariably, when atheists move off from the territory of the imagined god who is like Santa or the tooth fairy or Zeus and into the much meatier world of how now shall we live, they end up u-turning back up the road that they’ve escaped from.
This shouldn’t worry them. They need to answer these questions and I will be enriched by listening in on them answering these questions. But there is already a long tradition of people who discredit theism asking these questions. It’s not new-atheism, I grant you. It’s old-atheism. It’s where Nietzsche lives and where Schopenhauer lives and it’s a much more interesting place to hang out than the conservative world of empty pomposity that Ditchkins got so rich from.
But it will involve defining reason more rationally than the proposed ethical manifesto thus manages.
Your Correspondent, He should have just sent a crocodile into space as he originally planned