Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Another Atheist's Failed Attempt to Find Meaning in Life

Pottery, by Gary Wilson
A major problem for today's atheist is to try to find objective meaning in a purely physical world. Physical objects,
qua physical, have no meaning (nor any other values, nor free will).

In "We're Doomed. Now What?" Roy Scranton tries to pull a meaningful rabbit out of a physicalist hat. He fails.

Scranton begins by telling us that, as a species, we are in deep trouble.

"The time we’ve been thrown into is one of alarming and bewildering change — the breakup of the post-1945 global order, a multispecies mass extinction and the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it. Not one of us is innocent, not one of us is safe. The world groans under the weight of seven billion humans; every new birth adds another mouth hungry for food, another life greedy for energy."

o We’re doomed as a species.

o Nihilism is taking root
He's right. Unless there is a God, and God intervenes, we're toast. What follows from that belief is: nihilism. Nihilism is the belief that life has no objective meaning. If there is no God, and if reality is only physical, then of course life has no objective meaning. But give Scranton credit for mightily attempting something only God could do; viz., create objective meaning out of physical particles.

He writes:

"The Western world has been grappling with radical nihilism since at least the 17th century, when scientific insights into human behavior began to undermine religious belief. Philosophers have struggled since to fill the gap between fact and meaning."

·        OK – philosophers struggle to fill the gap between fact and meaning.

·        But Scranton, in this essay, is struggling to find meaning in a physicalist worldview. He doesn’t.
"Scientific materialism, taken to its extreme, threatens us with meaninglessness; if consciousness is reducible to the brain and our actions are determined not by will but by causes, then our values and beliefs are merely rationalizations for the things we were going to do anyway. Most people find this view of human life repugnant, if not incomprehensible."

·        On physicalism, this is correct.
So what is Scranton's escape plan from the doom that is upon us and will eventually overrun us? It is an appeal to the human drive and ability to make meaning where there is none. "Humanity’s keenest evolutionary advantage has been its drive to create collective meaning...  Our drive to make meaning is powerful enough even to turn nihilism against itself."

·        I don’t think so.

·        Yes, on physicalism, all we have is human beings making their own meaning out of life.
"When forced to the precipice of nihilism, we would choose meaningful self-annihilation over meaningless bare life."

·        I think that’s correct. But if “meaningful” reduces to “make your own meaning” then some among the philosophically minded (myself included) will find this hollow.

“In this view, there is no ultimate, transcendent moral truth.”
Again, Scranton is correct on this. But he doesn’t think this leads to nihilism since humans have this drive and ability to make up their own meaning to sustain themselves in the midst of the doom and despair.
“The human ability to make meaning is so versatile, so powerful, that it can make almost any existence tolerable, even a life of unending suffering, so long as that life is woven into a bigger story that makes it meaningful. Humans have survived and thrived in some of the most inhospitable environments on Earth…”

Why do I now hear violins playing? Why do the words blah… blah… blah… come into my mind? Because:

·         On physicalism there is no ultimate, transcendent moral truth. But this means that comparative moral judgments like “better than” or “worse than” have no meaning, in the same Platonic way that Line A is straighter than line B has no meaning if there is no such thing as “straightness.” “Straight” gets reduced to pure subjectivity. Thus, if all we are doing is making up our own meaning then my meaning is as good as yours even if they contradict.
Since Scranton never defines “meaning” I will.

·         “Meaning’ is fitness within a coherent context. This is Scranton’s “bigger story.” ‘Meaning’ finds its meaning within something like a coherent Grand Narrative. Or worldview, which BTW everyone has, whether examined or not.
Scranton appeals to Nietzsche, saying is view was “perspectivism” rather than “nihilism.” He writes:

“Nietzsche wasn’t himself a nihilist. He developed his idea of truth as a “mobile army of metaphors” into a more complex philosophy of perspectivism, which conceived of subjective truth as a variety of constructions arising out of particular perspectives on objective reality. The more perspectives we learn to see from, the more truth we have access to. This is different from relativism, with which it’s often confused, which says that all truth is relative and there is no objective reality.”
Aside from the fact that Scranton’s claim about Nietzsche is much debated, I think:

·         If “objective reality” means “physical reality,” then fine (even though that is a monstrous philosophical discussion, which is not as easy as it might seem).

·         Here Nietzsche was rejecting Kant, who claimed that one can never get to the ding an sich, the objective “thing in itself.” As Kant argued, there are limits to pure reason.

·         If Scranton is claiming there are objective moral values, then he can’t be a physicalist. But he is a physicalist. Therefore it looks like he is trying to pull a metaphysical rabbit out of the hat.
In Nietzsche Scranton sees some weird hope; viz., the Nietzschean “overman” provides “the possibility of a human being who could comprehend the meaningless of our drive to make meaning,” and create meaning. Please pause to think about that idea, and how it helps at all.

He further writes:
“Yet it’s at just this moment of crisis that our human drive to make meaning reappears as our only salvation … if we’re willing to reflect consciously on the ways we make life meaningful — on how we decide what is good, what our goals are, what’s worth living or dying for, and what we do every day, day to day, and how we do it. Because if it’s true that we make our lives meaningful ourselves and not through revealed wisdom handed down by God or the Market or History, then it’s also true that we hold within ourselves the power to change our lives — wholly, utterly — by changing what our lives mean. Our drive to make meaning is more powerful than oil, the atom, and the market, and it’s up to us to harness that power to secure the future of the human species.”

·         But if all we are doing is making up our own meaning (given the fact that humans are meaning-makers), then how is this not subjectivism? How is this not relativism? Here we run into the great Clash of Worldviews and the inevitable differentiation of “meaning.” The meaning of life for a Hindu or a Buddhist will never be the meaning of life for myself as a Christian theist. And none of these (except maybe Buddhism) will ever be the meaning of life for an atheist, who should conclude that life has no ultimate, objective meaning.

·         The following argument fails:

o   Humans make their own meaning.

o   Therefore, there is an objective meaning to life.
Now Scranton leaves reasoning behind. Think of Wagner’s music in the background…

“Most important, we need to give up defending and protecting our truth, our perspective, our Western values, and understand that truth is found not in one perspective but in their multiplication, not in one point of view but in the aggregate, not in opposition but in the whole. We need to learn to see not just with Western eyes but with Islamic eyes and Inuit eyes…”

·         “Truth is found in the aggregate?” This makes no sense to me. Which at least proves that I don’t think Truth is found in the aggregate is true.

·         Sounds like some kind of utilitarian theory of truth.
Finally, the political rhetoric pours forth promising a future nihilism could never deliver. (Despite Scranton’s protests, I see good, old-fashioned nihilism here.)

Accepting the fatality of our situation isn’t nihilism, but rather the necessary first step in forging a new way of life. Between self-destruction and giving up, between willing nothingness and not willing, there is another choice: willing our fate. Conscious self-creation. We owe it to the generations whose futures we’ve burned and wasted to build a bridge, to be a bridge, to connect the diverse human traditions of meaning-making in our past to those survivors, children of the Anthropocene, who will build a new world among our ruins.
·         To me this is just sheer rhetoric. Again, see Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship” where he attempts to rah-rah the troops to polish the brass on the Titanic as it is sinking.

To his credit, at least Scranton identifies a big-time problem with atheism; viz., the struggle with the inevitable nihilism that results upon reflection.
His essay serves as an example of the atheist’s noble but mostly rhetorical attempts (like Russell) to placate humanity and keep them in the prison-house of illusion and denial. Surely, on atheism, life has no objective meaning.