Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Weinberg on Science & Religion: Part II (Choose Funny-ness)

Steve Weinberg, in part 2 of his essay "Without God," talks about how to live life in the absence of God. He writes: "I'm not going to say that it's easy to live without God, that science is all you need. For a physicist, it is indeed a great joy to learn how we can use beautiful mathematics to understand the real world. We struggle to understand nature, building a great chain of research institutes, from the Museum of Alexandria and the House of Wisdom of Baghdad to today's CERN and Fermilab. But we know that we will never get to the bottom of things, because whatever theory unifies all observed particles and forces, we will never know why it is that that theory describes the real world and not some other theory.

Worse, the worldview of science is rather chilling. Not only do we not find any point to life laid out for us in nature, no objective basis for our moral principles, no correspondence between what we think is the moral law and the laws of nature, of the sort imagined by philosophers from Anaximander and Plato to Emerson. We even learn that the emotions that we most treasure, our love for our wives and husbands and children, are made possible by chemical processes in our brains that are what they are as a result of natural selection acting on chance mutations over millions of years. And yet we must not sink into nihilism or stifle our emotions. At our best we live on a knife-edge, between wishful thinking on one hand and, on the other, despair."

I think Weinberg is spot-on in these observations:

1. If God is not, then there's no point to life.

2. If God is not, then there are no objective moral values.

3. If there is no super-natural reality, then all that is real is physical. This includes "the emotions we treasure, [and] our love for our wives and children."

On atheism, all these things are correct. So, what's an atheist to do? Weinberg's answer is [I'm not now trying to be funny]: Get humor. Laugh. He writes: "What, then, can we do? One thing that helps is humor, a quality not abundant in Emerson. Just as we laugh with sympathy but not scorn when we see a one-year-old struggling to stay erect when she takes her first steps, we can feel a sympathetic merriment at ourselves, trying to live balanced on a knife-edge. In some of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, just when the action is about to reach an unbearable climax, the tragic heroes are confronted with some "rude mechanical" offering comic observations: a gravedigger, or a doorkeeper, or a pair of gardeners, or a man with a basket of figs. The tragedy is not lessened, but the humor puts it in perspective."

Now I am smiling. I find this funny. So, Weinberg has helped me already. Honestly, I find this hilarious. Maybe that's just me, but Weinberg has just touched my funny bone.

OK. But now I've got another problem. If all emotions are only the physical activity of the brain, what am I to make of the suggestion that I choose to get funny?

How on this physicalist paradigm can I follow Weinberg's advice? He counsels: "The more we reflect on the pleasures of life, the more we miss the greatest consolation that used to be provided by religious belief: the promise that our lives will continue after death, and that in the afterlife we will meet the people we have loved. As religious belief weakens, more and more of us know that after death there is nothing. This is the thing that makes cowards of us all." What on no-God's green earth am I to do with the exhortation to "reflect on the pleasures of life" given the fact that the act of "reflecting" on anything is right out of Descartes? And the atheistic truth is that after death there is nothing. OK. But this makes "cowards" of us all? Help! I fail to understand this hyper-metaphorical language.

I can see how Weinberg concludes, in the face of atheism, that all we can do is put on a happy face. What else could we do? Now I'm thinking of Bob Marley and Bobbie McFerrin. I used to despise this little song, but now I'm revisiting the lyrics.


Here's a little song i wrote, you might want to sing it note for note

don't worry, be happy

in every life we have some trouble, when you worry you make it double

don't worry, be happy dont worry be happy now dont worry be happy dont worry be happy dont worry be happy dont worry be happy

aint got no place to lay your head, somebody came and took your bed,

don't worry, be happy

the landlord say your rent is late, he may have to litigate,

dont worry (small laugh) be happy

look at me i'm happy, don't worry, be happy

i give you my phone number, when you're worried,

call me, i make you happy don't worry, be happy

aint got no cash, aint got no style, aint got no gal to make you smile

but don't worry, be happy cos when you worry, your face will frown,

and that will bring everybody down, so don't worry, be happy don't worry, be happy now...don't worry, be happy don't worry, be happy don't worry, be happy don't worry, be happy

now there this song i wrote i hope you you learned it note for note

like good little children don't worry be happy

listen to what i say in your life expect some trouble

when you worry you make it double don't worry be happy be happy now don't worry, be happy don't worry, be happy don't worry, be happy don't worry, be happy don't worry don't worry be happy don't worry, don't worry, don't do it, be happy, put a smile on your face, don't bring everybody down like this don't worry,

it will soon pass whatever it is, don't worry, be happy...

I'm not worried