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Saturday, January 22, 2005

Gould and the Moral Argument

Last week I heard a sermon that talked in part about how materialism, or the belief that matter is the only ultimate reality, cannot account for the existence of ethics and morality. This was essentially a defense of the general Moral Argument (these are really a family of arguments) I mentioned in my previous post on Apologetic Arguments. The structure of the Moral Argument is analogous to the Argument from Reason in that it postulates that materialism is proven false by the existence, in this case morals or ethics, of something that cannot be explained by it.

Anyway, I say all that to mention that after the sermon I pulled out my copy of The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox by the late Stephen Jay Gould. This was the last book Gould wrote before he died in 2002 and was not really finished, which you can tell by some of the rougher prose that he didn't get time to clean up. In the book Gould is very uncomfortable with Edward O. Wilson's belief in strict reductionism as espoused in his book Consilience (a term coined by William Whewell in the 1840s that literally means a "jumping together" and used by Whewell to explicate the idea that disparate facts could be coordinated to formulate lower-level laws explaining higher-level structures) when it comes to ethics and morality. Interestingly and sadly, after making a case for the existence of morality as not being based in the physical (factual) world he says:

"At this point, one can hardly avoid the question of questions: If factual nature cannot establish the basis of moral truth, where then can we find it? I don't feel excessively evasive or stupid in admitting that I have struggled with this deepest of issues all my conscious life., and although I can summarize the classical positions offered by our best thinkers through history, I have never been able to formulate anything new or better. After all, if David Hume, and others ten times smarter than I could ever be, have similarly struggled and basically failed, I need not berate myself for coming no closer."

What's interesting to me is that it seems Gould essentially rejected strict reductionism but still could not bring himself to follow the implications of the Moral Argument he was all the while defending. Instead, he seems to have given up and apparently did not include Christian or other religious thinkers among his "best thinkers through history".

1 comment:

unca said...

This seems to be in keeping with Gould's general practice of questioning much conventional thinking with regard to evolution but not going the extra bit to lend even luke-warm support to non-naturalistic arguments.