Horvath responds

Ah, it seems Mr. Horvath has taken an interest in this discussion after all.

Herr Professor has redeemed himself slightly in my eyes in his latest reply to one of my posts. He follows my blog very closely so no doubt he will discover this response to his so just a word of reminder to you, sir, that I do not use my blog for discussion and debate. Still, I think his post represents a good faith attempt to answer my question so I shall reply.

Ok, point noted: his blog is not for discussion and debate. Shall we proceed?

First I must really object to his apparent summation of my argument:

So man’s inhumanity to man is supposed to pose a tough problem for atheists, not because it’s so difficult to stop, but because the atheist’s lack of belief in God means he can’t explain why man is sometimes cruel to man. In other words, if God did not exist, we would expect man to behave better.

In Herr Professor’s summation we see a conflation of different theistic arguments. I am not for a minute arguing that because you don’t believe in God that doesn’t mean he can’t explain why man is sometimes cruel to man. I don’t see how you can derive that from my post at all which mainly presents the Christian explanation and asks the atheist for his.

Well, you see, I was reading the original post under the assumption that Mr. Horvath did not use his blog for discussion. So when I read, in the original post,

No, raw brutality towards one’s own entire species seems to be a problem unique to the human race, with or without religion.

But can we generate an explanation for that fact without religion?…

The response of these two Christians in the face of human nature’s apparent depravity was to identify it with a doctrine that was already known to them within the Christian community. What is the atheist going to turn to? [Note: Mr. Horvath's post ends here.]

I naturally assumed the question was intended to be rhetorical, and that Mr. Horvath was trying to suggest that the doctrine of Original Sin gave Christianity an advantage over atheism in that atheism was not supposed to have an explanation for the problem. I would have expected, if Mr. Horvath intended to say that Christianity had a better explanation, he would have compared the atheist’s explanation to his own, with a view to showing the points in which he could claim superiority for the Christian explanation. At the very least, he might have alluded to the fact that it’s not terribly difficult to explain cruel behavior in secular terms.

But we must take Mr. Horvath at his word, and if he says he did not mean to suggest that there is no secular explanation for evil behavior, then we must accept that it is so. Mr. Horvath exhorts me to “stick with what I actually say instead of what you think I’m saying,” and that’s certainly a fair point, and one that I shall endeavor to conform to. Sadly, immediately after this point, Mr. Horvath breaks his own rule.

On the agenda is the atheist’s explanation for how it is that humans are so cruel to humans. Note the shared assumption that cruelty is bad. In a future post I’ll demand that my relativist peer defend how under a relativist framework anything is actually bad, but for now I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth. He’s acting like there is an absolute moral system even if he assuredly denies that there is one.

I don’t see how Mr. Horvath can even remotely claim to have honestly thought that anything in my post, or in any of my posts, “assuredly denies” that there is an absolute moral system. For example, consider the following excerpt from an earlier response of mine to Mr. Horvath:

As I’ve explained before, there is a perfectly secular reason for morality, and it lies in the nature of the consequences produced by the behavior in question. Mr. Horvath gives us a good example of Christian moral relativism in action: he has had ample opportunity to observe that there is a secular basis for morality, and in fact Christians themselves appeal to the same, secular system for assessing the morality of things like drug abuse and stem cell research. Yet he continues to try and create the dishonest impression that atheists have no way to explain the existence of “moral realities.” For the Christian, such deceits are not wrong, because they are necessary in order to defend the Gospel. The morality of the deception is defined relative to its apologetic utility.

Mr. Horvath, if you’re going to put words into my mouth, you ought to at least try to ensure that they are not a blatant contradiction of the things I am actually saying. Sigh.

So, Mr. Horvath exhorts me to stick to what he’s actually saying, and then he puts words in my mouth that are the exact opposite of what I’ve said more than once to him before. He also denies that he was trying to claim that atheists have no secular explanation for the existence of evil and cruel behavior among humans. Anybody want to take any bets on whether or not he spends the rest of the post trying to prove that atheists have no reasonable explanation for the existence of evil and cruel behavior?

So let’s take his points:

First of all, the reason why we don’t see genocide among apes (other than man) is because they don’t have ethnic groups, or the intelligence required to establish social networks larger than their immediate habitats.

Surely this begs the question: why don’t they have ethnic groups? This answer is no answer at all.

It’s so predictable, I’m sometimes tempted to suspect he’s making a deliberate parody of Christian apologetics. He denies that he’s claiming atheists have no explanation, but the argument he’s most interested in refuting is the claim that atheists do have an explanation. He claims that all he wanted to do was present the Christian explanation, and ask the atheist for his, but if anyone does give him any answers, he immediately sets out to prove that they are “no answers at all.”

However, the implication is that ethnic groups would promote cruelty if they did exist. That is a curious claim to make and I don’t think there is much to it. The real objection seems to be that intelligence does the trick, not simply ‘ethnicity.’ Later statements seem to corroborate that.

Indeed. It’s called “reading in context.” The reason gorillas don’t commit genocide is because genocide is a crime against an ethnic group, and ethnic groups are defined in terms of an abstract, semantic categorization. Gorillas do not have a sophisticated language with subtle and abstract concepts like “gypsy” or “Kurd” or “Jew,” and therefore “genocide” does not appear among gorillas for exactly the same reason that they do not have premarital sex or bounced checks.

Apes do compete and they do fight and they do sometimes commit rapes and murders and battles between rival groups that on occasion lead to one of the groups being exterminated. It varies from species to species, but it is quite complex and quite real, and evolutionists use it to gain some insights into human aggression. But genocide, per se, is something that can only occur among species intelligent and sophisticated enough to create concepts corresponding to ethnic divisions. If the ethnic groups don’t exist, then you can’t have warfare between the groups. That’s really all there is to it.

Human intelligence gives us tremendous leverage for our achievements, whether for good or for bad.

I don’t deny this for a minute but does it really answer the problem? I already raised human intelligence in my original post which he responded to.

Mr. Horvath has an unfortunate tendency to break my answer up into little bits, each of which is only part of my answer, so that he can deny that any of the individual bits, on its own, is “the answer.” He says that he is not trying to argue that atheists have no explanation for human evil, but if that’s really the case, why is he working so hard to contrive some pretext for claiming that my answer is not an answer?

And indeed, is his objection even valid? We see abundant cruelty in the natural world, both between and within species. Mr. Horvath agrees that human intelligence does give us the ability to extend those natural cruelties in proportion to our positive achievements. And what’s left to explain? The means are sufficient to produce the result, and therefore no further explanation is needed.

[I]t would seem that Herr Professor agrees with the thesis that “any sufficiently enlightened group of humans would exert their power in humane and benevolent ways.” Unfortunately, that takes his argument about intelligence giving us ‘tremendous leverage’ out at the knees, for Herr Professor is advocating that what we really need is even more intelligence… and yet by his argument it would follow that more intelligence would be just even more ability to leverage our achievements, good and bad.

Mr. Horvath should stick to what I say instead of what he thinks I mean. I do not, for example, assume that “intelligent” automatically means “humane and benevolent.” Why should it? Nor do I endorse his tautologous thesis that any “sufficiently enlightened” humans would be “humane and benevolent.” To the extent that “sufficiently enlightened” is defined as being humane and benevolent, the statement is merely a tautology, equivalent to saying that sufficiently nice people would be nice. It’s true by definition, but so what? It has nothing to do with the secular factors which lead to cruel behavior among humans.

And what does Mr. Horvath mean about “taking out” my argument that intelligence gives tremendous leverage to our deeds (good or evil)? Does he mean that, having previously agreed that this statement was correct, he now thinks that it is incorrect? If a “sufficiently enlightened” group of humans has not (so far) swept in and saved us from ourselves, does that mean that our intelligence does not enable us to achieve results (good or evil) on a far greater scale than can be achieved by the rest of the animal kingdom? Apparently Mr. Horvath was so desperate to try and discredit my argument that he forgot to make any sense. He’s not trying to deny that atheists have an explanation for evil behavior, though!

Thus, the really critical question is still left unanswered. ‘Intelligence’ is a smokescreen. The Professor seems to have it backwards. To produce ‘real world improvement’ in human behavior what we really need is regression of our knowledge and intelligence. It would be better for us if we were dumber. It would be worse for us if we were any smarter.

I suspect that by this point Mr. Horvath may have forgotten what the question even is. The question under discussion is not “How can we improve human behavior?” Nor is my answer above intended to suggest that if people were more intelligent they would be better behaved. The question is, “What factors cause people to commit atrocities like genocide?” and my answer is that at least part of the reason is that man’s superior intelligence makes him capable of greater deeds, for good or for evil. Intelligence is certainly not the sole reason people do bad things, nor have I ever said it was. If Mr. Horvath would simply stick to what I say–and resist the temptation to break it into little fragments he can more easily turn into straw men–then he might find out that there is indeed a secular explanation for human behavior.

So, the Professor’s argument is really thus: “Humans are just as cruel to each other as other species but because of humanity’s ‘intelligence’ the extent of damage that they can do to each other is magnified.”

‘Proportion-wise’ seems to me to be a phrase calling out for measurement. Is it really the case that the more intelligent a species is the more pronounced its achievements, good and bad, and that an examination of dogs, birds, and monkeys, when compared with humans, will show a correlation between the intra-species cruelty and the relative intelligence of that species? I don’t think so at all, but Herr Professor offers a testable hypothesis and I think he should test it.

Mr. Horvath flatters me, but my observation was not a hypothesis, because the issues involved are rather more complex than I am capable of accounting for in quantifiable terms. I merely make the observation that, for example, we do not anesthetize animals so that our young can devour them from the inside out, still alive. Nor do we inject victims with painful and/or corrosive poisons in order to make them easier to eat. You may say, “Well, that doesn’t count because when insects do it, it’s not intentional cruelty.” That’s fine. I have my subjective opinion, and you’re welcome to disagree. It doesn’t really pertain to my point, however.

Prejudice, superstition, misunderstanding, intolerance, and so on, are all cognitive by-products of our imperfect intelligence, and they are a too-frequent source of inhumane behavior.

There is an unsupported assumption at work in the Professor’s line of argumentation. Is it really the case that a perfect intelligence will not engage in prejudice, intolerance, etc? What is the connection between intelligence and prejudice? Why would perfect intelligence eschew intolerance?

I can see where Mr. Horvath might misunderstand my point, which I admit I could have stated more clearly. Prejudice, superstition, misunderstanding, intolerance, and so on, are all by-products of the limited and sometimes inaccurate way in which our mind works. For example, our minds are influenced by basic biological factors like hunger, fatigue and fear. We have inherent, primitive instincts acquired through long generations of evolution, instincts that may have helped our ancestors to compete and survive, but which sometimes get in the way of intelligent social cooperation.

Also, we are not omniscient. Our minds have to work for the knowledge they acquire, and it’s easier to subscribe to common prejudice than to conduct your own investigation and analysis all the time. We misunderstand because we don’t know all the facts, and because we have to communicate using words whose meanings are defined for us by our experiences, which aren’t always as common as we think they are. Some people have a series of experiences which teach them to view the world with hostility and defensiveness. Some people have natural, inborn tendencies towards aggression and violence. And sometimes these two groups overlap. And so on.

Since Mr. Horvath, as he himself tells us, is not trying to claim that there is no secular explanation for evil behavior, I’m sure he will see that I have at least pointed him in the direction of some of the many secular, biological and psychological factors that combine to produce evil behavior in humans. And if he does not find my answer adequate, I would dearly love to hear what he thinks the secular reasons are. After all, he’s not trying to claim that there are no secular reasons. He told us so himself.

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Posted in Atheistic Morality, CAMWatch, Unapologetics. 1 Comment »

One Response to “Horvath responds”

  1. Is Original Sin the answer? « Evangelical Realism Says:

    [...] Horvath responds [...]