Neither faithlessness nor false certainty: Kenan Malik on God, science, and the burden of moral choice

Kenan Malik, a new favorite author of mine, criticizes both the notion that morals derive from God and the notion (proposed by Sam Harris among others) that morals derive from science:

At first glance these two approaches — that God tells us what to do, and that science defines right and wrong — seem to be distinct, indeed almost polar opposite, approaches. One alienates moral values to a transcendental realm, and makes them the personal choice of a deity, albeit an all-powerful, entirely good deity. The other suggests that values emerge out of human needs, and that such values can be discovered by scientists in the same way that they can discover the causes of earthquakes or the composition of the sun.

I want to suggest, however, that these two approaches have far more in common than might appear at first glance. In particular, in the desire to look either to God or to science to define moral values, both diminish the importance of human agency in the creation of a moral framework. Both seek to set moral values in ethical concrete. […]

The search for ethical concrete is a search for moral certainty that derives from a despair about human capabilities and a deprecation of human agency. Both the argument that God tells us what to do and the claim science defines right and wrong are attempts to relieve humans of the burden of making moral choices, by alienating to God or to science the responsibility for establishing what is good and evil. But one cannot so easily abandon our responsibility to make choices, even in those cases in which external commandments seem to have expunged any possibility of choice. Take the story of Abraham, in which he is commanded by God to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Kierkegaard points out that even though this is a divine command, Abraham still has to make choices. First, he has to decide whether the command he has received is authentic. And, second, he has to decide whether to follow the command or not. Abraham cannot evade his own moral responsibility simply by following orders.

Perhaps no one has better expressed this sentiment than Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, his meditation on faith and fate. Written in the embers of the Second World War, Camus confronts both the tragedy of recent history and what he sees as the absurdity of the human condition. There is, he observes, a chasm between ‘the human need [for meaning] and the unreasonable silence of the world’. Religion is a means of bridging that chasm, but a dishonest one. ‘I don’t know if the world has any meaning that transcends it’, he writes. ‘But I know that I do not know this meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it.’

Camus does not know that God does not exist. But he is determined to believe it, because that is the only way to make sense of being human. Humans have to make their own meaning. And that meaning can come only through struggle, even if that struggle appears as meaningless as that of Sisyphus, who, having scorned the gods, was condemned by them to spend eternity in the underworld forever rolling a rock to the top of a mountain.

The certainties of religion provides false hope and in so doing undermines our humanity by denying human choice. So do any other false certainties with which we may replace religion. For Camus, religious faith had to be replaced neither with faithlessness nor with another kind of false certainty but with a different kind of faith: faith in our ability to live with the predicament of being human. It was a courageous argument, especially in the shadow of the Holocaust. It is also an argument that remains as important today as it was then.

The human condition is that of possessing no moral safety net. No God, no scientific law, nor yet any amount of ethical concrete, can protect us from the dangers of falling off that moral tightrope that is to be human. That can be a highly disconcerting prospect. Or it can be a highly exhilarating one. Being human, the choice is ours.

This comes from a talk Malik has recently given at a conference on “The Lust for Certainty.” I recommend reading the whole thing.

(Image via Squidoo)

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2 responses to “Neither faithlessness nor false certainty: Kenan Malik on God, science, and the burden of moral choice

  1. A computer starts somewhere. It starts with a bios and a CPU and a motherboard ect… When we code that computer to pump out a random number, what makes it pick the number it picks? Exactly the same computer sits beside it’s identical and they both pick different 1st random numbers. Is the Bios fed a seed during construction and every new bios gets a different seed? Those of us that have worked with random numbers know what a seed is. So why does my computer give a number between 100 and 1000 as 756, but yours gives, 537? Is that not a form of intelligence beyond that of artificial? We gave the computer the ability to give random numbers, but what makes it give or pick that random number when in reality it has no ‘will’ to decide. Why 3 and not 4, when it favours nothing? Even with a seed, what makes it choose 5 with this seed but 7 with that seed? Where in the ruels of life does it say that, with this seed equaling 756395837 in that computer, 1st random # will be this?.

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