The thoughtful evolutionary scientist Daniel Dennett, in his very positive contribution to the Council volume, says that human beings are different enough from the other animals to need morality, and he adds, contrary to Pinker, that we even need confidence in our equal dignity. He agrees with Pinker that claims for dignity have been basically Christian, and that these claims have been refuted by the scientific discovery that everything we think and do has a material cause. Our beliefs in dignity and the soul have the same status as the discredited belief in mermaids. It is no sillier to believe in a half-woman/half-fish that no one has seen than to believe in a half-body/half-soul that no one has seen.
Dennett, however, has a scientific explanation for why we need the scientifically discredited belief in dignity. We are social animals who have brains big enough to conceive of projects that will enable us to live purposeful lives, but there is no scientific basis for the freedom at the foundation of human conceptions of purpose. So we cannot live well without useful illusions—free will, love, dignity, etc. Even the idea that any particular human life matters at all is merely a fiction—but a fiction worth maintaining. We have seen that nihilism has all sorts of undesirable social consequences; therefore, we need to sustain these illusions in the face of what we know about our accidental, material, and evolutionary existences.
Dennett’s ingenious solution to the incompatibility between scientific truth and our need for dignified belief is that we should justify our allegiance to the useful fiction of equal dignity by acknowledging the good life it makes possible. It is indispensable for the habits and trust needed to perpetuate social and political institutions. We can stop all this pointless obsessing over whether the belief is actually true by just admitting that it is not, but science can still explain why we need to believe it anyway.
Dennett’s pragmatic hope that we can stop caring about whether our belief in dignity is actually true is not shared by any other author in the Council’s book. In fact, the pragmatic philosopher Richard Rorty had a simpler idea: let’s call true whatever belief makes us happy. Rorty, of course, never called his approach dignified. Dennett himself is too dignified to deny the truth of what he thinks he knows, and there is some dignity, too, in his humane intention to spare us the consequences of a dignity-free world. It seems he denies the reality of the dignity he himself displays only because to do otherwise would require admitting that human beings are mysteriously free from nature or materialistic causation. Yet in Dennett’s well-intentioned confusion, he remains stuck with acknowledging that, in some way, we are the only species that can be held responsible for perpetuating both human nature and the very conditions of life on our planet. Is there really no dignity in that?
Very interesting. The attempt to find an account of ethics based in materialism is not one to which I am sympathetic: it seems to me quite clearly doomed, and also unnecessary, since materialism is false. Still, I am surprised that Dennett concedes as much as Lawler seems to be saying that he does. I would have expected him to insist that materialism can be embraced without such a high cost in terms of the tenability of our ordinary moral intuitions and values.
Free will is foundational: we know it by introspection, with certainty. By contrast, Descartes and Hume and Popper and the skeptics are right that all scientific knowledge, i.e., knowledge derived by induction from patterns in sense-experience, is conjectural. To reject free will in favor of "science" is, at best, to reject better evidence in favor of worse. Actually, it is not even that, for the conceit that "everything" is determined by materialistic laws is fallaciously to transpose a working assumption of science into a conclusion of science, though this is not the sort of thing that science could ever validly conclude. Without free will there can be no ethics because you can't be blamed for what you can't help doing. The converse is not true, however: there could be free will without ethics, although we might not be so intensely aware that we have free will if we didn't have morality to give us a strong reason to resist our inclinations. But what an odd world Dennett conceives of, in which humans have a need to live purposeful lives, though there is no purpose in anything and "even the idea that any particular human life matters at all is a fiction!"