Tuesday, 20 March 2007

I'm tired and working too hard and haven't been sleeping too well. Anyway, term is now finally over - I handed in a not very good paper proposal for my political economy class. Still, it helped germinate some ideas which may bear fruit sooner or later. Now, for the next week, I'm going to work on migration, which will bear fruit.

Something that comes through in the debate between Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris (see last entry) is the difference in registers. Sam Harris is overwhelmingly focused on a scientific idea of truth, and his problem with religion is that it does not meet these standards. Andrew Sullivan embraces a broader idea of truth, and talks about the emotional resources that religion provides him with. I think this is true of atheists and religious moderates more generally. It is not a criticism of atheists: the criterion of scientific truth is arguably the clearest one we have got, and abandoning it bears heavy cognitive costs. However, I do think that a challenge for the current wave of non-religious and anti-religious thinkers is to give an account of what, in a secular world-view, can replace the ethical framework provided by religion. Atheism's dirty secret is that the extant secular answers to that are not very convincing.

(But then nor are the extant religious justifications for morality. There is a notorious problem in explaining why we ought to obey God's commands unless they are independently justifiable; and if the latter, why bring God in?)

Question for today: what would a modern and unillusioned set of reasons for ethical behaviour look like? Not, I think, very much like a watertight argument that moves from premises to conclusions. I'll stop there and get back to work.

NP: Os Mutantes Le Premier Bonheur du Jour