What We Can't Not Know

In which I object to a certain definition of "objective."

This week, I published a well-received article at The Spectator on Richard Dawkins’s recent bad day at the office, when radio host Brendan O’Connor ever so politely handed him his lunch on the knotty question of what’s to be done with unborn disabled children. By now, most everyone has seen the viral exchange, but I encourage you to go and watch it if you haven’t yet. I can almost find it in my heart to feel sorry for poor old Richard as I watch, his demolition is so thorough, yet so deliciously understated. Almost, but not quite.

And yet, I will grant Dawkins this much: When he says that he is not alone in believing it would decrease the total amount of world suffering to abort a child with Down’s syndrome and “try again,” he’s not wrong. In the interview, he repeated and dug in on this point, which he made seven years ago in his non-apology apology for the original tweet. No, he said at the time, he was not committing a bandwagon fallacy by pointing out that he was just saying the quiet part out loud for many pregnant women:

Wasn’t that like saying “Hanging is right because if you took a plebiscite most people would bring back hanging.”? No, I was not advocating mob rule. I was simply suggesting that those hurling accusations of Nazism, vile, monstrous fascistic callousness etc., should reflect that their fireballs of hatred might as well be aimed directly at the great majority of the women who have actually faced the dilemma. Might that not give you pause before you accuse one individual of being a brute simply because he spells out the thinking behind the majority choice?

Translation: He’s not sayin’. He’s just sayin’.

Well, it’s true. Iceland is the obvious case study, a “respectable” Western society where Down’s syndrome has been almost wholly eradicated. There and elsewhere, social pressure from all sides—medical professionals, colleagues, friends, family—weighs heavily against mothers who want to keep such children. These mothers are told that their children “deserve” to die, in the positive sense of “deserve” — in the sense that we owe it to the mentally disabled child to put it out of its, and everyone else’s, potential misery.

I say this not to diminish the ineradicable horror of the choice to abort. To that degree, I take Richard up on his dare and say yes, even the “ordinary” women he so bravely hides behind are complicit in this horror. At the same time, I have compassion for them. In Iceland, as in the jungles of South America, it takes a village to kill a child.

In my article, I picked up on a bit of Twitter commentary on the interview from Tom Holland, reminding everyone that this is all in Nietzsche. (What do they teach them in these schools?) Tom tweets: “The assumption that all human life is of equal value is, as @RichardDawkins intimates, a theological one. As Nietzsche long ago recognised, ‘when one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet.’”

But not everyone took Tom’s point. This gentleman pushed back: “OK, but my problem with basing human rights on religion is that religion is not actually objectively true, so you’re building a house on sand.”

Tom had his answer ready: “Human rights aren’t objectively true either! They derive from profoundly Christian theological presumptions. They are quite as culturally contingent as a belief in Christ’s resurrection.”

I’ve heard Holland talk along these lines before. But it’s hardly unique to him. In my anthology essay on Jordan Peterson (excerpted here), I lift a bit from his tome Maps of Meaning that makes more or less the same point in the same language [emphasis added]:

It is the subjective aspect of individuality—of experience—that is divine, not the objective. Man is an animal, from the objective viewpoint, worthy of no more consideration than the opinion and opportunities of the moment dictate. From the mythic viewpoint, however, every individual is unique—is a new set of experiences, a new universe; has been granted the ability to bring something new into being; is capable of participating in the act of creation itself. It is the expression of this capacity for creative action that makes the tragic conditions of life tolerable, bearable—remarkable, miraculous.

I am a great admirer of Peterson, as I am of Holland. Nevertheless, I am compelled to say that this sort of talk is utterly, thoroughgoingly wrong-headed, on multiple levels.

I should define my terms, to begin with. Here is what I’m talking about when I talk about something’s being “objectively true”: To borrow from Peterson’s paragraph above, a thing is objectively true when it is not subject to “the opinion and opportunities of the moment.” To wit, it is a thing which we discover, not a thing which we create.

It should be said that I hold this to be the case not only for the existence of human rights, but for the truth of the Christian religion. Christians do themselves no favors when they slink away from the public square and treat their faith as a thing with no rational basis. An un-integrated mind is a terrible thing to waste.

But leave that for now. Let’s consider something simpler. Take, for example, the thing on which I spent five years of graduate-level education: numbers. “Tom,” I asked Tom, “is it objectively true or culturally contingent that 2 + 2 = 4?” And if his answer was “Yes, that’s objective,” I asked him to explain to me why the statement, “It is wrong to expose infants to die on a mountaintop” is any less so.

I could have been more lurid if I’d wanted to: “It is always and in every circumstance wrong to burn babies alive in gasoline as a spectator sport.” “It is always and in every circumstance wrong to rape toddlers.” You take the point. Pick one.

As it was, the particular example I picked allowed Tom to point to “plenty of societies” who have thought that exposing infants to die was “not just not wrong, but the right thing to do.” By contrast, he asked, “Have any societies thought that 2 + 2 didn’t equal four?”

Hmm. Well.

But to play along, for the moment: What would happen to a society that thought 2 + 2 didn’t equal four? Well, you might say, we couldn’t function. We couldn’t program anything, or engineer anything, or build any aqueducts.

But expose an infant, or expose a thousand infants, it matters not. The building of aqueducts will proceed apace. The trains will run on time.

Yet Tom accused me of shifting the goalposts: “If some societies have believed that 2 + 2 = 4, & some have believed that 2 + 2 = 5, then - on the basis of that evidence - I would say that people’s belief that 2 + 2 = 4 is indeed culturally conditioned.” If he were born in another time and place, he confesses, he might well have taken a different view on the proposition of infant exposure: “I disapprove of infanticide because I have been raised within a society that for many generations now has disapproved of it. If I’d been born in 5th century Sparta, it would no doubt have been somewhat different.”

I reply thusly: So what? What is the argument, here? Is it, “Different societies have different ideas of what constitutes a moral evil, therefore there is no such thing as objectively knowable moral evil”? In that case, why can’t we apply the same argument to science? A scientist in 2021 might have done science rather differently were he born in the 18th century, or the 10th, or the 1st. Do we say therefore that there is no such thing as objectively knowable scientific truth?

“Well no, you see, that’s different, because we’ve collected data and run experiments and…”

Fair enough. But what was the Final Solution, if not an experiment? What is the number six million, if not a datum?

A clarifying word might be in order here: I don’t deny that any number of beliefs, right or wrong, may be culturally conditioned. But why should the mere fact that one belief has been conditioned in one culture and the opposite belief in another culture mean there is, in fact, no fact of the matter? If we just got enough grad students with degrees in queer underwater basket-weaving to tweet all together that 2 + 2 = 5, I don’t deny that they would be conditioning culture. Nevertheless, my own confidence that 2 + 2 = 4 would remain quite unshaken. The same holds true for my own confidence that it is always and everywhere wrong to kill infants, however many bioethicists might lodge their academic protests to the contrary.

But it’s not just bioethicists. As I said before: It takes a village. Some of those villagers decided to weigh in in the comments section underneath my Spectator piece. Those of you who don’t subscribe to the magazine won’t be able to see them. But that’s alright. I saved out some of the best (worst) bits for you. A little sampling:

Ask yourself if you would knowingly buy a piece of equipment that is known to have faults that will make it a constant drain on your pocket and still not do the job you bought it for....and you are stuck with it, you cannot get rid of it and get another better one.

Another:

Maybe Dawkins was right, maybe he was wrong - or most likely he was neither, or somewhere in between. All the same, I'd rather live in his world where prospective parents have the choice to not spend the rest of their lives caring for a functional infant than the world of many commentators where random genetic flukes can utterly, irreparably and irrevocably torpedo the lives of parents with not a damn thing they can do about it. This is the rest of two human lives we are talking about. Every waking moment. They will never be free of caring for this person. To wish to deny them an out is abhorrent.

An Egyptian ex-pat weighs in:

Let’s be honest, no one would choose this situation. When I lived in Egypt, any child born with an obvious disability would be discreetly knocked over the head or otherwise left to die, which was presumably the same here until recent times.

How irksome. If only we were enlightened, like the Egyptians.

Men and women in all times, in all places, have seared their consciences to whatever degree they have to, to attain whatever immediate goal they have set themselves. This, I don’t deny, is true. It always has been. It always will be.

But I reply, once again: So what? Your conscience is not yet seared, I trust, I hope. Your stomach still turns when you read the comments with me. Your eyes are still open, still seeing. Seeing, as the American writer Whittaker Chambers saw, when he watched his baby daughter in her high chair and was struck, as though for the first time, by the shape of her ear. Seeing, as his wife saw, when she was still pregnant and the plan had been set to abort, but all in a moment the floodgates opened and she was taking his hands and pleading, “Dear heart, we couldn’t do that awful thing to a little baby, not to a little baby, dear heart!”

I close with another word from the comments. This one, a word of warning. Caveat lector:

May I give a word of warning to any atheists. Do not think too hard about this issue. As soon as you start to think seriously about ethics you are tottering on the edge of a deadly precipice.

The danger is that the twin faculties of reason and conscience might drive you to a belief that there really is such a thing as objective morality. Once you lose that battle your entire "system" could collapse around you in a very short period of time.

You will fall into the abyss of theism. All sorts of inconvenient and annoying claims will be made upon your time and your life. Intellectual honesty at this time must be resisted at all costs, or - and you can trust me on this, I speak from personal experience - your entire life will be broken to bits.

Far better to move on quickly, get back on twitter, watch a boxset, go for a walk, something... anything.

Do not, whatever you do, spend ten seconds seriously reflecting upon this article or any other like it.

You have been warned.

Love from a Christian.

Coda: Tom and I have enjoyed a further back-and-forth apropos of this piece, in the course of which I was accused of arrant sophistry (a first!) To sum up, in all seriousness: I don’t argue Tom’s point that culture conditions, shapes, and molds us into who and what we are. And as I think I’ve demonstrated here, I strongly share his fear that the fragile notion of equal human dignity is being blown away by the wind even as we speak. An honest humanist, thinking over his “because” for believing there is dignity manifested in a weak, suffering individual, might say, “Well, I believe that because I was raised on the story of a weak, crucified God.” And this would be true, in one sense of the word “because” — in a causal sense. The belief is caused, or conditioned, by culture. And a culture that has forgotten its own story will no longer have even the instinct left to go on living by it. But the fact that the suffering individual has dignity was never waiting for a culture to discover it in order to become true. It was always true, for those with eyes to see.