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Herr Professor on Atheism and Badness: A response to his Response

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.

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.  Reading arguments into arguments that aren’t really being made is a common problem in these debates.  Dear Professor:  if you stick with what I actually say instead of what you think I’m saying I think you’ll find our conversations much more productive.

Fortunately, the Professor doesn’t dwell on his mischaracterization and seemingly responds to the substance of my post.

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.  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.   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.

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.  I said:

[Sntjohnny Said:] Yes, we agree that unchecked power is a recipe for disaster, but why should it be?  Isn’t it possible that any sufficiently enlightened group of humans would exert their power in humane and benevolent ways?

That an enlightened, non-superstitious, educated inquiry into “a real-world understanding of [human cruelties] causes” actually seems to be Herr Professor’s own conclusion:

The real problem is understanding it in terms that will help us produce better relationships between men. The Christian response–superstitiously attributing bad behavior to a magical “sin nature”–is of no practical help in that regard. To produce a real-world improvement in human behavior, we need a real-world understanding of its causes.

So, it 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.

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.  But the Professor has a better argument:

Proportion-wise, the amount of cruelty we see in man is not inconsistent with the amount of cruelty we see in nature, and in fact I’d put it down as significantly less, among men, than we might otherwise expect.

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.  For my part, when I survey a century as bloody as the last and begin to try to generate analogs in the animal kingdom I think the comparisons are very week indeed.

This seems to be the only cogent way to respond but I am unconvinced.   This is his best answer but that isn’t where he spends most of his time.  He says:

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.

Now, again, we are just going to pass over the tacit acceptance that there is an absolute moral code here… ok, prejudice and superstition is bad… we’ll not talk about how we are going to justify such assessments… we’ll move on.

This correlation between imperfect intelligence and all the bad things he listed goes against his argument that proportion-wise, we humans are about like how the animals are.  If this argument were to fly, it should follow that with even more imperfect intelligence such as dogs and apes have,  there should be more cruelty in the lower life forms than what we see among humans.

There is also 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?

In conclusion, Herr Professor’s response raised just a ton more questions and on a couple of critical points seemed to deepen the problem.  I don’t know if we want less understanding or more understanding as a strategy to diminish human cruelty.  I don’t know why intelligence should stomp out intolerance, especially when he has just argued that intelligence is what allows intolerance to have dramatically more consequences.  And I don’t know what basis it is agreed that cruelty is bad in the first place.

Questions, questions, but we can count on The Professor to issue a reply very promptly.  🙂


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