Weinberg and moral evil by Jim McGuiggan

Weinberg and moral evil

 An essay by the utterly brilliant physicist, Steven Weinberg, called A Designer Universe? is readily available. The physics material in it will have to be judged by his peers but once he wanders from there, all in all, it's a pretty poor piece of work.
 The online version doesn't have the bracketed phrase but other sources give it as part of his delivery in 1999 in Washington D.C. Here's what he says. "[Religion is an insult to human dignity.] With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion." You know right away he didn't get that from physics; and while, when he speaks in the realm of science the world must stop to listen, it's obvious from that remark that sheer nonsense can come out of just about anyone's mouth. (For a physicist he seems very emotional and rather cavalier in his judgements. Don't you think so? Hmmm.)
With him there is no good religion or bad religion—religion is an insult to human dignity. One of science's great achievements, he later says, is to enable people not to be religious so he says he doesn't want constructive dialogue with religious people.
He speaks of morally evil behaviour though he knows that "morals," like everything else in the universe as he sees it, from the simplest particle to his own complex brain, exists as the result of and is under the inflexible control of forces and "laws" that know nothing about virtue or value or moral standards. There is no freedom in the universe as understood by this militant unbeliever. In the same piece/speech he won't even allow for Einstein's Spinozan pantheism though he tells his listeners/readers that if they choose to think in that way they're "free to do so." But he doesn't believe they are "free" to do so. He believes that contrary to all appearances that "freedom" is an illusion. We might say to him, using his own terms, that we don't know why he would use the term "freedom" except as "a protective coloration."
You can't get "choice" or "ought" out of chemistry or gravitation; you can't get "good" or "evil" or "morality" out of the primitive "soup" or the gases that spewed out the human race and all that's around us. You can only get what is not what "should be".
As you read him, you'd think that he thinks that his "thinking" about the universe transcends all the forces and gases that he says spawned the galaxies and us along with them. He speaks as though he stands outside the mass of mindless whirling forces and physical laws; he has forgotten or depends on our forgetting that he is no more or less than the tiniest part of the whole mindless march of "matter" and that what we call "thought" is no more "free" than an apple is to rise rather than fall. He might hope that we'll be fooled by human complexity and "brilliance" that distinguishes us from a salamander or a fungus. We have such control over our environment, changing it to suit our needs or defeating it when it is an obstacle—surely we must be "free". In Weinberg's world that's all illusion. The simplest creatures control and sometimes overcome their environments but they have no "freedom". Ask him, he'll tell you so! All the while we hear him speak he's bewitching us with our conviction that he is a free thinker of free thoughts. We think that of him but his doctrine doesn't allow us to think that of him. Jean Paul Sartre saw with clarity what atheists must accept—there is no right or wrong, good or evil is only what is. The universe is mindless and without purpose and so it is amoral. Weinberg's use of these words is a great verbal scam; it is "protective coloration" that keeps him (rationally speaking) from having to stand speechless in the presence of unfathomable evil.
He hides behind the fact that we can do things a fungus can't—like work with abstract propositions, for example—but we're not to suppose that Weinberg believes we're "free"—intelligence is only "matter" that is more complex than other forms but it is no less the product of mindless atoms and chance. We are complex enough to be self-conscious but "self-consciousness" is only one of the countless things spewed out by the forces and gases of which Steinberg's brain and a pebble on the beach are but two illustrations.
That's why Sartre thought it so absurd. A mindless dance by omnipotent matter accidentally produces a creature that is self-conscious and in time it will dance back around and obliterate him. The famous mathematician and philosopher, Bertrand Russell (Stratonician atheist), took the same view. What they held is the logic of Weinberg's theories but he either lacks the boldness of Sartre or the vision of Russell.
Oh well.