Your comments about New English Review led me to look at the website for the first time in many months. I once hit that site regularly, but quit when I decided it was a waste of time trying to make any sense out of it. Anyway, visiting NER, I read John Derbyshire’s most recent contribution, in which he espouses the theories of “Peak Oil,” Global Warming, and Malthusian overpopulation, along with taking the usual shots at theists and those who believe that Islamism is a problem. This led me to recall our discussion of about a year ago, in which I predicted that, thanks to his embrace of radical Darwinism, Derbyshire might become a liberal. We both admitted this possibility, but many of your readers rose to Derbyshire’s defense. Well, as of today, Derbyshire believes:
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Sure, he still holds some heterodox opinions on race, immigration (sort of) and gun rights, but I ask you; does that list sound more “conservative” or more “liberal”? Just being cheerfully pessimistic does not a conservative make. His views are obviously “evolving” and I think we can all see what the ultimate destination looks to be. He’ll be wearing an “Edwards 08” button before you know it.
- That Christianity is false;
- That Darwinian selection can account for all human behavior;
- That Islamism presents no real threat to Western Civilization,
- and that those who believe that it does are guilty of “Islamophobia”;
- That we are running out of oil;
- That we are not going to deport masses of illegal aliens,
- so there is no point in discussing it as a policy option;
- That human nature is not unchanging, and that we may be significantly different from people who lived in the past;
- That overpopulation is a real and serious problem;
- That Al Gore is at least partially right about global warming;
- That abortion and euthanasia are civilizing influences,
- and that those who oppose them hold to “a cold and pitiless dogma”;
- That the problems ushered in by the 1960s revolution were “milder” than the ones that they replaced;
- That the sexual revolution was a net plus for human happiness;
- That terrorism is “a problem that can be managed,” and that we are not really involved in a war.
(I can, of course, supply “proof texts” for all of these statements, but anyone who regularly reads Derbyshire will know that all of the above is true.)
Ian B. writes:
I thought I’d add a few more things to Tom’s documentation of Derb’s descent into liberal nihilism. To my mind these are some of his most egregious examples of nihilistic flapdoodle:
As to where Derb is going ideologically, I think it’s ultimately somewhere even worse than typical liberalism. I think he’s headed deep into left-wing Post-Modernist or Deconstructionist territory. Several of the things he’s already said imply it. For instance, take his contention that beliefs are epiphenomenal, and that people’s actions are not really caused by their beliefs, but by underlying material causes.
- He has said that fathers don’t matter, and really good parenting in general, thus striking at the foundation of the traditional family. (He explicitly based this on Darwinism. His only argument for it boiled down to the watery claim that good fathering wouldn’t be important for hunting and gathering, together with the assumption that people are really nothing more than hunter-gatherer survival machines).
- He has said that beliefs are epiphenomenal, hence striking at the heart of conservatism, which holds that ideas are enormously important and have consequences. (This was part of his argument that fathers don’t matter. Jonah Goldberg objected that even if fathers can’t change the intelligence of their children much, they are enormously important because they instill them with good beliefs and principles. Derbyshire responded by dismissing beliefs as “epiphenomena.” Btw, isn’t it a little odd for a writer for an opinion magazine to be claiming that ideas don’t matter?)
- Meshing with the above, he’s shown many times that he doesn’t think that anybody is really a Christian, or a Muslim, or anything else, and that nobody’s actions are really the result of their beliefs, but that they really act on (no doubt Darwinian) material desires that they attribute to their beliefs. This is what allows him to delude himself about the nature of Islam. (If he weren’t such a shallow thinker, it might occur to him to apply this to his own Darwinian beliefs. More on this below.)
- He has said that life has no meaning or purpose. (And is simultaneously dumb enough to ask why conservatism should have anything to do with “creationism,” a term he dishonestly uses to refer to anything besides Darwinian materialism, when he knows full well that his Darwinian materialism implies this anti-conservative notion.)
- It’s also affected his honesty, particularly about religion. For a long time (up until he wrote that article announcing his apostasy on account of Darwinism) he dishonestly claimed that Darwinism was fully compatible with Christianity, and mocked those who claimed otherwise, even as he had rejected Christianity because of their incompatibility. He also linked to articles by fringe theologians like George Coyne, using titles of blatant demagoguery, like “Vatican slams ID.”)
- He’s indulged himself in New Agey gobbledy-gook such as “Mysterianism.” (Actually, to be “charitable,” I don’t think Derb is really a Mysterianist. He believes that natural selection created religion and the idea of God, and that these things are ephiphenomenal, and surely he’s not stupid enough to think that his idea of God is somehow exempt from this, or that God and conscious beings could really be “one and the same thing” as he puts it, when living things are just genetically programmed survival machines in his cosmology. Rather, I think the whole Mysterianism thing is just another example of his newfound dishonesty, a wafer-thin veneer contrived to mask what is really his atheism. Or perhaps I’m wrong, and Derbyshire’s materialism actually has fried his mind so badly that he has divested himself of basic logic. He wouldn’t be the first.)
- He’s pro-eugenics (as well as pro-abortion and pro-euthanasia as Tom already pointed out).
If this is really true, then it must apply to Derb’s own beliefs and actions. That is, he’s not really a Darwinist, and his supposed Darwinism is just an epiphenomenal illusion over the real, material causes of his behavior. This means that he has no basis for saying that his Darwinism was arrived at any more rationally, or that it is any more objective or closer to the truth, than the beliefs of the most dyed-in-the-wool young earth creationist.
Furthermore, his own actions must not really be caused by his beliefs, so that when he writes articles espousing Darwinism for instance, his writing has nothing to do with his (illusory, epiphenomenal) beliefs about science or Darwinism, and hence nothing to do with the truth or rationality of those beliefs, rendering all of his actions and arguments wholly irrational.
In fact, take Derbism to it’s logical conclusion, and you must conclude that truth is relative or nonexistent. According to Derb, human reason (the ability to discern truth) is just brain mechanics that evolved as a necessity for survival in a life of hunting on the Savannah. The implication is that “truth” is nothing more than a label we’ve applied to those brain states that cause behavior that results in survival (or rather to the epiphenomenal beliefs that sit on top of those brain states). And that brings you directly to the Nietzschean conceit that there is no truth, but only power.
So far, Derb has only used his Darwinism to deconstruct other people’s metaphysical beliefs, and assumes that his materialist “scientific” beliefs are objective, rational and true. However, this is inconsistent and can’t be rationally sustained. Ironically, I think it is only Derbyshire’s intellectual shallowness that has prevented him from plunging fully into Deconstructionist mush. If he were more thoughtful and introspective, and less aggressively ignorant, he would have already applied his reductionism to himself, as Post-Modernists before him have done, and realized where it goes. From what I can tell, he eats his metaphysics out of Stephen Pinker’s hand, and since Pinker hasn’t taken his beliefs to their logical conclusion, Derb hasn’t either. However, he is lurching that way, little by little.
By the way, I find it absurd that National Review keeps him on board. I realize that they want to harbour a spectrum of conservative viewpoints, but come on! Surely there has got to be some kind of standard! Who in their right minds would call him conservative at this point if he didn’t work for NR? In some ways he’s further left than most lefties, and he’s become downright nasty to boot. NR has booted people for less. I suppose since he’s been there for a while, and made pals with many of the other writers, that nobody has the heart to tell him he’d be better off at The New Republic or Reason.
Alan Roebuck writes:
I just want to be sure that nobody reading VFR misses the wider implications of Ian B.’s brilliant analysis of John Derbyshire’s worldview. Derb is a Darwinist, which means he thinks that everything evolves randomly, with no guidance from a Transcendental Designer. In particular, everything about human beings is the result of chance, including our thoughts, and the actions that spring from our thoughts.
Although many atheists will not admit it, this view necessarily follows from atheism. If there is no God, then we cannot have any confidence that anything is really true (or good or beautiful). And this is the Achilles’ heel of Darwinism, and therefore of atheism: it cannot give a persuasive account of itself.
Let me develop this a bit more using an example from a previous VFR post of mine. Imagine the following Darwinist thought experiment: a cave man has evolved the characteristic that, whenever he sees a lion, he forms the belief that the lion is a suitable partner for mating, and he responds to this belief by attempting either to run away from the lion, or else to take measures to defend himself from the lion.
If you think this is an absurd scenario, consider: under Darwinism, it is only physical survival that is selected for. The contents of our mind can be anything, as long as our physical behavior is correct. And therefore under Darwinism, there is no reason to believe that our thoughts correspond to reality. This is not “Derbism,” this is the necessary result of an atheistic, Darwinistic worldview.
Similar comments pertain to such things as morality and the meaning of life: according to atheism, they cannot be known.
Of course, few people, if any, can live according to this belief. Derb, like most people, cannot live in a world in which thought bears no necessary relation to reality, and in which the most important questions have no authoritative answers. And so he lives inconsistently, by assuming, in his everyday activities, that knowledge is possible.
The late Christian apologist Francis Schafer described this as living in a “two-story” world, as in a two-story building, in which the lower story consists of the mundane world of ordinary perception and activity, and the upper story consists of everything with a transcendental component: religion, morality, the meaning of life and so on. This upper story also contains the belief that makes it possible for western man, in contrast to other civilizations, to have confidence in the existence of an absolute and objective truth that is necessary if we are to have any confidence in our ability to know. This is the belief that a rational Lawgiver created the universe to be rational.
But for contemporary man, there is no staircase connecting the two stories. The “upper story” is entirely inaccessible from the lower story of physical reality. Contemporary non-Christian man says he does not believe in the objective reality of such things as moral rules, the meaning of life, or our ability to know universals. In the realm of everyday physical functioning, he believes that reality makes sense, but he also believes that the important upper story is not accessible rationally, but only by a wholly irrational “leap of faith.”
Normal people, and even most abnormal people, sense at least intuitively that the upper story contains things vitally necessary for life. But the atheistic worldview of Derb and those like him denies that this story is accessible to man. Atheism cannot give a persuasive account of reality or of human life as it is actually lived.
And this is why our conservative apologetics has a chance: we have the goods that the people need.
Near the beginning of Alan’s comment, he writes: “If there is no God, then we cannot have any confidence that anything is really true.” I started to ask Alan: “How does it follow, if there is no God, it’s therefore impossible to know that two plus two equals four or that jumping out of a ten story window will result in death?” But I guess Alan then proceeded to answer my question. But it’s still not entirely clear to me, and his argument needs to be unpacked.
As I understand it, this is what he’s saying: If there is no God, then Darwinian evolution is true. If Darwinian evolution is true, then the only knowledge that matters to man is that which helps survival. If the only knowledge that matters to man is that which helps survival. then knowing that two plus two equals four is a matter of complete indifference to man. The only ideas that would matter to man are those helpful to survival. A man may correctly believe that two plus two equals four, but he would not believe it because it’s true, he could only believe it because it helped him survive, because he had ancestors who because they believed that two plus two lived longer than other humans and had more children and so passed on the ability to know that two plus two equals four. Man could have no concern with objective truth—the question of whether things are true or false.
That’s more or less where Alan’s critique of Derbyshire ends. Derbyshire is wrong because his view cuts man off from the upper story and so leaves man without the ability to know or care whether it is possible to know the truths on which his survival in the lower story depends.
Unless, of course, it was only the people who believed in objective truth who survived and passed on their genes. Natural selection selected humans who believe in the existence of objective truth.
And I suppose the latter is the way the Derbyshires of the world would explain the presence in man of the belief in the existence and knowability of truth and the belief that truth matters—not that there’s any objective reason for man to believe in the existence and knowability of truth, and not that truth matters or can matter, but that the belief that truth exists and that truth is knowable and that truth matters was helpful to survival. And this, Derbyshire would say, proves the greatness—the godlike greatness—of natural selection. In a world in which there is no reason to believe in truth, natural selection plants in man the belief in truth.
Alan Roebuck explains further:
Strictly speaking, to “know” something, you must have a justification for it. In philosophy, the definition of “knowledge” is: “justified true belief,” so if I have a true belief (e.g., “Thou shalt not murder”), it is not knowledge until I can give a valid justification. My thought can correctly correspond to reality (i.e., be true), and I can agree with it rather than just know that it is a thought some people have (i.e., I can believe it), but it does not, strictly speaking, count as knowledge if I cannot justify it.
Most atheists have the true belief that Thou shalt not murder, but they cannot properly justify it. They say, for example “human societies do better if people do not murder,”, but this is an incorrect justification: If I am the only one who murders, and I only do it once, then society will do just fine. It also begs the question; Why should I care how the rest of society does if I am doing well? Their other arguments also fail.
Honest atheists will admit that their system cannot justify morality. They will then either say “there’s no reason why, you just shouldn’t murder,” or else “this is what society has chosen, and we like it.”
Ian B. has shown how, under Darwinism, we cannot know that our thoughts correspond to reality. They may, but we have no proper justification, because Darwinism makes it plausible that our mind is just a way of inducing us to behave a certain way, rather than being our awareness of reality.
Also, as David Hume has shown, induction cannot give us certainty that the patterns we observe will continue into the future. They may, but we cannot know it. He was being an honest atheist: without a superintending God, we cannot have confidence that past patterns will persist.
Also, your counterargument in the post at VFR “Natural selection selected humans who believe in the existence of objective truth” is undercut by my cave man example: natural selection only selects how we behave, not how we think. Natural selection will only select how we think if there is a true correspondence between thought and reality, which is not certain under atheism.
Tom S. writes:
Boy, you and I and Ian B. really stirred up a hornets nest over there, didn’t we? [The debate at the What’s Wrong with the World website.] Also, I now get a sense of what you have to put up with on a daily basis—I never knew that there were so many ways to misunderstand or misrepresent someone’s arguments:-)
It should be noted that I did not say that just accepting any of the theories that Derbyshire accepts makes one a liberal. You can believe in any one of the things that Derbyshire believes in, or even several of them, and still be a conservative. But, as James Burnham pointed out in his great work, “Suicide of the West,” liberal and conservative beliefs tend to cluster, even if the beliefs in the cluster might seem to be unrelated. In the past few years, Derbyshire has adopted numerous positions on issues normally associated with the liberal cluster, and it is the totality of the positions, and the direction of movement, rather than the individual issues, that I find indicative. For example, if someone tells you that he doesn’t believe in God, that tells you very little about his politics. If he tells you that he is pro-choice, that tells you more, although it is still far from definitive. Ditto global warming or peak oil or the lack of an Islamist threat, or belief in the sexual revolution. But if a person tells you that he is pro-choice AND atheist AND believes in global warming AND the sexual revolution AND euthanasia AND thinks that Islam is no worse than Christianity AND thinks that anyone who doubts that Darwinian evolution is the sole mechanism that shaped man is a moron, AND that he has recently moved to these positions from positions that were once more traditionally conservative, then I think that it is safe to say that the person in question has moved left. This is what Derbyshire has done.
Of course, Derbyshire still holds numerous positions from the conservative “cluster”—but not as many as he did a few years ago, not as many as he did even a year ago. I of course did not say that Derbyshire was a liberal; I said that he was moving left, and that if this leftward drift continued, he would become a liberal. I stand by this.
Alan Roebuck writes:
I asserted in this thread that there are many important things that the atheist cannot know, working off of Ian B.’s comments about how Darwinism undermines any confidence we can have that the contents of our mind tell us truths about reality.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 07, 2007 08:54 PM | Send
Upon reflecting further, I see that my argument must be modified. I had said that the atheist cannot know “Thou shalt not murder,” because he cannot justify his belief that thou shalt not murder. But in the Letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul tells us that non-Christians can know certain important things, such as that God exists, and that we have broken His moral laws.
And one thing this shows is that everyone can know many things by intuition, that is, without constructing a justification by engaging in a formal process of reasoning. Morality, at least the most basic elements of morality (if not all of its details), can be known by intuition. But many people, as Paul tells us, suppress this knowledge.
However, the atheist still has a problem: he cannot account for the existence of many things he knows. In other words, although he knows that they exist, he cannot satisfactorily account for why these things exist.
An analogy: Suppose I hear a loud sound, but cannot identify it, because it is unfamiliar. I know there was a sound, and I don’t need a formal justification. But until I investigate it, I don’t know what the sound signifies, or what caused it. I cannot account for its existence.
This, then, is the problem of the atheist: his worldview cannot account for the existence of many things that he knows to exist, such as the basic elements of morality and the basic elements of logic. These things obviously exist, but atheism cannot account for them.
Expanding on the above, here is audio of an excellent lecture by Ken Samples, a Christian professor of philosophy, on what’s wrong with naturalism, by which he means the entire atheistic worldview. Look near the top of the page for “Professor Samples’ Lectures on a Christian Worldview,” and click on “Naturalism: a Secular Worldview Challenge.”