Friday, December 19, 2008

Ben Shapiro's Latest Intellectually Bankrupt Comments on Atheism

Ah, my favorite subintellectual Ben Shapiro is at it again, this time treating us to an embarrassing helping of question-begging religious apologetics in response to all those horrible atheists daring to add their voices to the Christmas chorus. Unfortunately, his effort is one long argument from consequences, unsupported assertions, and, as usual, ignorance of science and defiance of observable reality. In the end, he has merely created a tapestry of illusion: there is no there there. I will demonstrate.

He begins with the usual assertions:

"...without God, there can be no moral choice. Without God, there is no capacity for free will. That's because a Godless world is a soulless world. Virtually all faiths hold that God endows human beings with the unique ability to choose their actions -- the ability to transcend biology and environment in order to do good. Transcending biology and our environment requires a higher power -- a spark of the supernatural. As philosopher Rene Descartes, put it, Although I possess a body with which I am very intimately conjoined [my soul] is entirely and absolutely distinct from my body and can exist without it."

Note the question-begging chain of word games Shapiro plays here. Moral choice, Shapiro asserts, requires free will, which is defined as the ability to transcend our biology, which in turn requires a gift from a supernatural "higher power", which is called "the soul". What a bunch of gobbledygook! Shapiro is going to have to do better than a nearly 400 year old assertion from a poor philosopher, and the adherence to that idea by many churches (and not nearly the unanimity he claims) to support this notion.

Descartes' method of thinking about how he felt about the reality of his consciousness has been eviscerated by modern brain experiments. Those show that our consciousness is indeed a blending of different parts. Descartes, unable to perceive any divisions in his thoughts, concluded his consciousness was of one whole. As usual, it is unwise to rely on centuries old philosophy when modern science is available. Add the famous case of Phineas Gage, and the idea of a God-given immortal, unchanging soul becomes ludicrous. We may have many souls, but it is certain we do not have just one.

If we then dispense with the notion of a transcendent soul, where are the emperors clothes? If we grant Shapiro his idiosyncratic definitions, what is the cost of simply jettisoning the notions of morality and a soul entirely? We can still have rules to live by (call them ethics if you like), designed to achieve whatever ends we choose. Whether those choices are transcendent of our biology, or merely products of it, makes little difference. The pain and pleasure we feel at various outcomes will be just as real. Likewise, whether we punish undesired behavior to influence a transcendental soul, or to trigger biological programming to achieve a different end, the result is again the same. Whence the need for a soul and morality as Shapiro has defined it?

"...our entire legal and moral system is based on ... the presupposition that we can choose to do otherwise. We can only condemn or praise individuals if they are responsible for their actions. We don't jail squirrels for garden theft or dogs for assaulting cats -- they aren't responsible for their actions. But we routinely lock up kleptomaniacs and violent felons."

Again, Shapiro is playing word games. When our legal system says "can choose otherwise", it doesn't mean "has a soul". It refers to norms of behavior when confronted with several options. Whether that choice is a result of biological programming or a transcendent soul, the reality is the same: the person doing so is punished in an effort to motivate that person to do otherwise, and to motivate others to not repeat his actions. Where's Shapiro's beef? He tries to find some by distorting Jefferson:

"Human equality must spring from a Creator, because the presence of a soul is all that makes man human and equal. Biology suggests inherent inequality -- who would call Arnold Schwarzenegger and Stephen Hawking equal in any way? Biology suggests the sort of Hegelian social Darwinism embraced by totalitarian dictators, not the principles of equality articulated by the Founding Fathers."

Shapiro is making a category mistake here. Biology suggests nothing, it only describes what is. The "is" of biology cannot produce the "ought"s of dictatorships, social Darwinism, or any other straw man Shapiro wishes to lay at the feet of Darwin. The proof of that pudding is to note that the political inclinations of biologists are decidedly not like Shapiro speculates. Reality trumps ideology.

We also see mass equivocating with the term "equal". When we speak of human equality with regard to the law, that is the extent of it. Nothing in the Declaration of Independence or our laws refers to equality of biological abilities. To Thomas Jefferson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Stephen Hawking were equally human, and that was all that mattered.

"Without a soul, freedom too is impossible -- we are all slaves to our biology. According to atheists, human beings are intensely complex machines. Our actions are determined by our genetics and our environment."

Again, Shapiro is using a self-serving definition of "freedom". If those actions that appear as free choices to us, which are distinct from other actions in their manner and circumstance, are based solely on our complex biology, as all evidence to date suggests, then we simply need to change our definition of "freedom", or come up with a new word for those actions. If we had a name for the mountain that housed the gods, only to find there are no gods there, it doesn't mean we no longer have a mountain. Simply change the name and be done with it. Again, Shapiro's argument has no substance.

"According to atheists, if we could somehow determine all the constituent material parts of the universe, we would be able to predict all human action, down to the exact moment at which Vice President-elect Joe Biden will pick his nose."

Here Shapiro reveals his scientific ignorance. Quantum physics reveals that reality, at its core, is stochastic, rather than 100% deterministic. So no, educated atheists think no such thing as Shapiro asserts.

"Freedom is generically defined as the power to determine action without restraint (Random House). But if action without restraint is impossible, how can we fight for freedom?"

We already know action without restraint is impossible. We cannot choose to live forever, be 30 feet tall, or flap our arms and fly to the moon. We are constrained by our biology in all choices. Why should constraints on our thoughts be any different than any other?

"If there is no God, there is no freedom to choose. If there is no freedom to choose, there is no good or evil. There is merely action and inaction. There is no way to be good for goodness sake -- that would require an act of voluntary will far beyond human capacity. Atheists simply gloss over this point."

We don't gloss over it, we just say "so what?". We don't use Shapiro's idiosyncratic self-serving definitions, so we don't have a problem. Good and evil are what we say they are. It is up to Shapiro to demonstrate that we need more.

"The American Humanist Association states on its website,, We can have ethics and values based on our built-in drives toward a moral life. Without a soul, this is wishful thinking of the highest order. Since when does biology dictate a moral drive? If it did, wouldn't man always get more rather than less moral -- wouldn't history be a long upward climb? What about the murderers, rapists, child molesters and genocidal dictators? Are they all ignoring that built-in drive toward a moral life?"

Here again we see Shapiro's scientific ignorance. The notion that a natural drive to morality would produce more moral people over time is downright Lamarckian. By his reasoning, since birds are driven to fly, they should fly progressively higher over time. Idiotic is too elevated a term for this stinker of an argument.

He also speaks as though our consciousness is one entity, entirely complete and consistent, instead of the complicated, imperfect result of evolution that it is. Human beings demonstrably have a mixture of drives that we'd categorize as moral or immoral. Murderers, rapists, and such fall on one side of the spectrum, saints and heroes on the other.

Shapiro simply ignores the reality in the nonreligious world, where the soulless simply create their own moral systems and live by them without the need for all this jibber jabber about souls. As usual, when reality conflicts with ideology, he rejects reality.

"Atheism may work for individuals. There are moral atheists and there are immoral religious people. But as a system of thought, atheism cannot be the basis for any functional state."

This is a red herring. No one is claiming that atheism can be the basis for anything. It can't, for all the same reasons not believing in Mickey Mouse can't be either. Atheism simply allows us to find a basis for a system of thought that is unencumbered by religious nonsense.

" If we wish to protect freedom and equality, we must understand the value of recognizing God. We must recognize the flame of divinity -- free will -- He implanted within each of us."

The disparity between this statement and reality is staggering. All over the world, we see the trend that those areas most concerned with recognizing God (say, the middle east, or America), protect freedom and equality far less so than godless areas like Australia or Europe. The facts fly in the face of Shapiro's assertions, as usual. Once the falsehoods are removed, no response but "so what?" is necessary to expose this facade of an argument. So morals aren't absolute? So what? If murderous Yahweh is an example of absolute morality in action, give me imperfect, changing, manmade morality any old day.


ollie said...

My goodness. When someone asks me "where does an atheist get his/her morals" I say: "the same place we get our science, engineering, literature, art, etc."

Frankly I've grown uninterested in refuting the nonsense that the woos spout out; it is boring and ultimately stupid.

Luke said...

What an amazing bunch of claptrap! There have been endless and heated theological debates about whether free will is possible given the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent God. To argue that you can't have free will without such a God is just silly.

ScienceAvenger said...

Ollie, I find it pretty boring and stupid myself, but it seems as long as they keep spewing it, there will always be new ears hearing it for the first time that will benefit from exposure to a recent refutation. I see it as a chore we all take our turn at.

Luke, I'm amazed at the poor quality of the philosophical positions the fundies take. Most of what they say can be solidly refuted in just one step. They've never come close to resolving the problem of evil, the Kalam argument falls apart as circular, and the notions of absolute morals hopelessly conflicts with the notion of morals by divine fiat coming from an omnipotent being.

The fools could give us a run for it if they'd settle for a superior god rather than on insisting on a perfect one. Perfect ability takes away all room for excuses as to why we don't have perfect results.