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  • On the Purpose of Life

    Posted on January 29th, 2018 Helian 9 comments

    There is no purpose to your life other than the purpose you choose to give it.

    Is your goal the brotherhood of all mankind?  Is your goal human flourishing?  Is your goal a just and democratic society?  Is your goal to serve some God or gods?  The first cause of all of these goals, and any others you can think of, may be found in innate emotions and predispositions that exist because they evolved.  They did not evolve for a purpose.  They exist because at some time that was likely quite different from the present, they happened to increase the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  They are the foundation that gives rise to every single human aspiration, no matter how noble or sublime that aspiration is imagined to be.

    There is no objective reason why the goals and aspirations of a Plato or a Kant are more worthy, more legitimate, or more morally good than the goals and purposes of a thief or a murderer.  In the end, every human being on the planet is merely seeking to satisfy emotional whims that he has interpreted or tried to make sense of in one way or another.  Any individual’s assumption that his goals are intrinsically superior to or more right and proper in themselves than the goals of others is a delusion.  The universe doesn’t care.

    What does that imply concerning what our goals should be, or what we really ought to do?  Nothing!  Nothing, that is, unless we are speaking of what some individual should do or ought to do to satisfy some idiosyncratic whim that cannot possibly be objectively more legitimate or praiseworthy than the whim of any other individual.

    How, then, do we choose what are goals and purposes will be.  After all, we will have them regardless, because it is our nature to have them.  In the end, all of us must decide for ourselves.  However, in choosing them I personally think it is useful to be aware of the above fundamental facts.  The alternative is to stumble blindly through life, chasing mirages, clueless as to what is really motivating us and why.  Again, purely from my personal point of view, that does not seem an attractive alternative.  Blind stumbling tends to be self-destructive, not to mention inconvenient to others.  I personally find it incongruous and disturbing to witness the spectacle of emotions and passions inspiring people to pursue ends that are the precise opposite of the ends that account for the existence of those emotions and passions to begin with.

    I personally pursue goals and purposes that seem to me in harmony with the fundamental reason that my goals and purposes exist to begin with.  In other words, my basic goal in life has been to survive and reproduce.  Beyond that, I seek first to promote the survival of my species, and beyond that the survival of biological life in general.  These goals seem noble and sublime enough to me personally.  Our very existence seems to me improbable and awe-inspiring.  Think of how complex and intelligent we are, and of all our highly developed senses and abilities.  Look in a mirror and consider the fact that a creature like you could have evolved from inanimate matter.  Think of the mind-boggling length of time it took for that to happen, and the conditions that were necessary for it to occur in the first place.  Stunning!  We are all final links in an unbroken chain of life that began with direct ancestors that existed billions of years ago.  There are millions of links in the chain, and all of those links succeeded in generating new links, so that the chain would remain unbroken through all that incredible gulf of time.  Under the circumstances, my personal purpose seems obvious to me.  Don’t break the chain!

    There is no objective reason why these purposes of mine are any more good, legitimate, or worthy than any alternatives whatsoever.  They are not intrinsically better than the purposes of an anti-natalist, a suicide bomber, or a celibate priest.  However, for personal reasons, I would prefer that, as others pursue their purposes, they at least be aware of what is actually motivating them.  It might lead them to consider whether blindly breaking the chain, destroying themselves and harming others in the process, is really a goal worth pursuing after all.

  • The Alternate Reality Fallacy

    Posted on September 18th, 2015 Helian 1 comment

    The alternate reality fallacy is ubiquitous.  Typically, it involves the existence of a deity, and goes something like this:  “God must exist because otherwise there would be no absolute good, no absolute evil, no unquestionable rights, life would have no purpose, life would have no meaning,” and so on and so forth.  In other words, one must only demonstrate that a God is necessary.  If so, he will automatically pop into existence.  The video of a talk by Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias included below is provided as an illustrative data point for the reader.

    The talk, entitled, “The End of Reason:  A Response to the New Atheists,” was Zacharias’ contribution to the 2012 Contending with Christianity’s Critics Conference in Dallas.  I ran across it at Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True website in the context of a discussion of rights.  We find out where Zacharias is coming from at minute 4:15 in the talk when he informs us that the ideas,

    …that steadied this part of the world, rooted in the notion of the ineradicable difference between good and evil, facts on which we built our legal system, our notions of justice, the very value of human life, how intrinsic worth was given to every human being,

    all have a Biblical mooring.  Elaborating on this theme, he quotes Chesterton to the effect that “we are standing with our feet firmly planted in mid-air.”  We have,

    …no grounding anymore to define so many essential values which we assumed for many years.

    Here Zacharias is actually stating a simple truth that has eluded many atheists.  Christianity and other religions do, indeed, provide some grounding for such things as objective rights, objective good, and objective evil.  After all, it’s not hard to accept the reality of these things if the alternative is to burn in hell forever.  The problem is that the “grounding” is an illusion.  The legions of atheists who believe in these things, however, actually are “standing with their feet firmly planted in mid-air.”  They have dispensed even with the illusion, sawing off the limb they were sitting on, and yet they counterintuitively persist in lecturing others about the nature of these chimeras as they float about in the vacuum, to the point of becoming quite furious if anyone dares to disagree with them.  Zacharias’ problem, on the other hand, isn’t that he doesn’t bother to provide a grounding.  His problem is his apparent belief in the non sequitur that, if he can supply a grounding, then that grounding must necessarily be real.

    Touching on this disconcerting tendency of many atheists to hurl down anathemas on those they consider morally impure in spite of the fact that they lack any coherent justification for their tendency to concoct novel values on the fly, Zacharias remarks at 5:45 in the video,

    The sacred meaning of marriage (and others) have been desacralized, and the only one who’s considered obnoxious is the one who wants to posit the sacredness of these issues.

    Here, again, I must agree with him.  Assuming he’s alluding to the issue of gay marriage, it makes no sense to simply dismiss anyone who objects to it as a bigot and a “hater.”  That claim is based on the obviously false assumption that no one actually takes their religious beliefs seriously.  Unfortunately, they do, and there is ample justification in the Bible, not to mention the Quran, for the conclusion that gay marriage is immoral.  Marriage has a legal definition, but it is also a religious sacrament.  There is no rational basis for the claim that anyone who objects to gay marriage is objectively immoral.  Support for gay marriage represents, not a championing of objective good, but the statement of a cultural preference.  The problem with the faithful isn’t that they are all haters and bigots.  The problem is that they construct their categories of moral good and evil based on an illusion.

    Beginning at about 6:45 in his talk, Zacharias continues with the claim that we are passing through a cultural revolution, which he defines as a,

    decisive break with the shared meanings of the past, particularly those which relate  to the deepest questions of the nature and purpose of life.

    noting that culture is,

    an effort to provide a coherent set of answers to the existential questions that confront all human beings in the passage of their lives.

    In his opinion, it can be defined in three different ways. First, there are theonomous cultures.  As he puts it,

    These are based on the belief that God has put his law into our hearts, so that we act intuitively from that kind of reasoning.  Divine imperatives are implanted in the heart of every human being.

    Christianity is, according to Zacharias, a theonomous belief.  Next, there are heteronymous cultures, which derive their laws from some external source.  In such cultures, we are “dictated to from the outside.”  He cites Marxism is a heteronymous world view.  More to the point, he claims that Islam also belongs in that category.  Apparently we are to believe that this “cultural” difference supplies us with a sharp distinction between the two religions.  Here we discover that Zacharias’ zeal for his new faith (he was raised a Hindu) has outstripped his theological expertise.  Fully theonomous versions of Christianity really only came into their own among Christian divines of the 18th century.  The notion, supported by the likes of Francis Hutcheson and the Earl of Shaftesbury, that “God has put his law into our hearts,” was furiously denounced by other theologians as not only wrong, but incompatible with Christianity.  John Locke was one of the more prominent Christian thinkers among the many who denied that “divine imperatives are implanted in the heart of every human being.”

    But I digress.  According to Zacharias, the final element of the triad is autonomous culture, or “self law”, in which everyone is a law into him or herself.  He notes that America is commonly supposed to be such a culture.  However, at about the 11:00 minute mark he notes that,

    …if I assert sacred values, suddenly a heteronymous culture takes over, and tells me I have no right to believe that.  This amounts to a “bait and switch.”  That’s the new world view under which the word “tolerance” really operates.

    This regrettable state of affairs is the result of yet another triad, in the form of the three philosophical evils which Zacharias identifies as secularization, pluralism, and privatization.  They are the defining characteristics of the modern cultural revolution.  The first supposedly results in an ideology without shame, the second in one without reason, and the third in one without meaning.  Together, they result in an existence without purpose.

    One might, of course, quibble with some of the underlying assumptions of Zacharias’ world view.  One might argue, for example, that the results of Christian belief have not been entirely benign, or that the secular societies of Europe have not collapsed into a state of moral anarchy.  That, however, is really beside the point.  Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that everything Zacharias says about the baleful effects of the absence of Christian belief is true.  It still begs the question, “So what?”

    Baleful effects do not spawn alternate realities.  If the doctrines of Christianity are false, then the illusion that they supply meaning, or purpose, or a grounding for morality will not transmute them into the truth.  I personally consider the probability that they are true to be vanishingly small.  I do not propose to believe in lies, whether their influence is portrayed as benign or not.  The illusion of meaning and purpose based on a belief in nonsense is a paltry substitute for the real thing.  Delusional beliefs will not magically become true, even if those beliefs result in an earthly paradise.  As noted above, the idea that they will is what I refer to in my title as the alternate reality fallacy.

    In the final part of his talk, Zacharias describes his own conversion to Christianity, noting that it supplied what was missing in his life.  In his words, “Without God, reason is dead, hope is dead, morality is dead, and meaning is gone, but in Christ we recover all these.”  To this I can but reply that the man suffers from a serious lack of imagination.  We are wildly improbable creatures sitting at the end of an unbroken chain of life that has existed for upwards of three billion years.  We live in a spectacular universe that cannot but fill one with wonder.  Under the circumstances, is it really impossible to relish life, and to discover a reason for cherishing and preserving it, without resort to imaginary super beings?  Instead of embracing the awe-inspiring reality of the world as it is, does it really make sense to supply the illusion of “meaning” and “purpose” by embracing the shabby unreality of religious dogmas?  My personal and admittedly emotional reaction to such a choice is that it is sadly paltry and abject.  The fact that so many of my fellow humans have made that choice strikes me, not as cause for rejoicing, but for shame.

  • Notes on “A Clergyman’s Daughter” – George Orwell’s Search for the Meaning of Life

    Posted on September 2nd, 2015 Helian No comments

    A synopsis of George Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter may be found in the Wiki entry on the same.  In short, it relates the experiences of Dorothy Hare, only daughter of the Reverend Charles Hare, a “gentleman” clergyman with a chronic habit of living beyond his means.  Dorothy’s life is consumed by a frantic struggle to maintain respectability in spite of a mountain of debt owed to the local tradesmen, a dwindling congregation, and a church gradually decaying to ruin for lack of maintenance.  There’s also a problem so repressed in Dorothy’s mind that she’s hardly conscious of it; she is losing her Christian faith.

    Eventually the pressure becomes unbearable.  At the end of Chapter 1 we leave Dorothy exhausted, working herself beyond endurance late at night to prepare costumes for a children’s play.  At the start of Chapter 2 we find her teleported to the Old Kent Road, south of London, where she wakes up with a bad case of amnesia and only half a crown in her pocket.  A good German might describe this rather remarkable turn of events as an den Haaren herbeigezogen (dragged in by the hair.)  In other words, it’s far fetched, but we can forgive it because Orwell refrains from boring us with explanatory psychobabble, it’s in one of his earliest books, and he needs some such device in order to dish up a fictional version of the autobiographical events described in his Down and Out in Paris and London, published a couple of years earlier.

    Eventually Dorothy is rescued from starvation and squalor by a much older cousin, who sets her up as a school teacher at Ringwood House, which Orwell describes as a fourth rate private school with only 21 female inmates.  At this point the astute reader will discover something that might come as a revelation to those who are only familiar with Animal Farm and 1984.  Orwell was a convinced socialist when he wrote the book, and remained one until the end of his life.  Mrs. Creevy, the woman who runs the school, is a grasping capitalist, interested only in squeezing as much profit out of the enterprise as possible.  The girls “education” consists mainly of a mind-numbing routine of rote memorization and handwriting drills.  Dorothy’s attempts at education reform are nipped in the bud, and she is eventually sacked.  In Mrs. Creevy’s words,

    It’s the fees I’m after, not developing the children’s minds.  It’s not to be supposed as anyone’s to go to all the trouble of keeping a school and having the house turned upside down by a pack of brats, if it wasn’t that there’s a bit of money to be made out of it.  The fee comes first, and everything else comes afterwards.

    Orwell later elaborates,

    There are, by the way, vast numbers of private schools in England.  Second-rate, third-rate, and fourth-rate (Ringwood House was a specimen of the fourth-rate school), they exist by the dozen and the score in every London suburb and every provincial town.  At any given moment there are somewhere in the neighborhood of ten thousand of them, of which less than a thousand are subject to Government inspection.  And though some of them are better than others, and a certain number, probably, are better than the council schools with which they compete, there is the same fundamental evil in all of them; that is , that they have ultimately no purpose except to make money.

    So long as schools are run primarily for money, things like this will happen.  The expensive private schools to which the rich send their children are not, on the surface, so bad as the others, because they can afford a proper staff, and the Public School examination system keeps them up to the mark; but they have the same essential taint.

    Recall that the book was published in 1935.  The Spanish Civil War, in which Orwell fought with a socialist unit not affiliated with the Communists, began in 1936.  In that conflict he had his nose rubbed in the reality of totalitarianism, socialism that had dropped the democratic mask.  The experience is described in his Homage to Catalonia, which is essential reading for anyone interested in learning what inspired his later work.  There he tells how the Communist legions attacked and destroyed his own division, regardless of the fact that it was fighting on the same side.  Totalitarianism has never recognized more than two sides; the side that it controls, and the side that it doesn’t.  He saw that its real reason for existence was nothing like a worker’s paradise, or any other version of “human flourishing,” but absolute, unconditional power.  The nature of the system and the power it aimed at was what he described in 1984.  When A Clergyman’s Daughter was published, that revelation still lay in the future.  It may be that in 1935 Orwell still thought of the socialists as one big, happy, if occasionally quarrelsome, family.

    Be that as it may, the real interest of the book, at least as far as I’m concerned, lies at the end.  There, more explicitly than in any other of his novels or essays, Orwell takes up the question of the Meaning of Life.  While down and out, Dorothy had lost her faith once and for all.  In spite of that, after Mrs. Creevy sacks her, she finds her way back to the family parsonage, and takes up again where she left off.  She suffers from no illusions.  As Orwell puts it,

    It was not that she was in any doubt about the external facts of her future.  She could see it all quite clearly before her… Whatever happened, at the very best, she had got to face the destiny that is common to all lonely and penniless women.  “The Old Maids of Old England,” as somebody called them.  She was twenty-eight – just old enough to enter their ranks.

    She was not the same women as before.  She had lost her faith, and yet, she meditated,

    Faith vanishes, but the need for faith remains the same as before.  And given only faith, how can anything else matter?  How can anything dismay you if only there is some purpose in the world which you can serve, and which, while serving it, you can understand?  Your whole life is illumined by that sense of purpose.

    Life, if the grave really ends it, is monstrous and dreadful.  No use trying to argue it away.  Think of life as it really is, think of the details of life; and then think that there is no meaning in it, no purpose, no goal except the grave.  Surely only fools or self-deceivers, or those whose lives are exceptionally fortunate, can face that thought without flinching?

    Her mind struggled with the problem, while perceiving that there was no solution.  There was, she saw clearly, no possible substitute for faith; no pagan acceptance of life as sufficient unto itself, no pantheistic cheer-up stuff, no pseudo-religion of “progress” with visions of glittering Utopias and ant-heaps of steel and concrete.  It is all or nothing.  Either life on earth is a preparation for something greater and more lasting, or it is meaningless, dark and dreadful.

    Here we see that, even in 1935, Orwell wasn’t quite convinced that the Soviet version of a Brave New World really represented “progress.”  And while democratic socialism may have later given him something of a sense of purpose, it wasn’t yet filling the void.  Dorothy considers,

    Where had she got to?  She had been saying that if death ends all, then there is no hope and no meaning in anything.  Well, what then?

    At this point, the true believers chime in.  They know the answer.  Bring back faith, and, voila, the void is filled!  So many of them honestly seem to believe that, because they feel a need, the thing needed will automatically pop into existence.  They need absolute moral standards.  Therefore their faith must be true.  They need a purpose in life.  Therefore their faith must be true.  They need human existence to have meaning.  Therefore their faith must be true.  They must have unquestionable rights.  Therefore their faith must be true.  And so on, and so on.  Orwell is having none of it.  Dorothy muses on,

    And how cowardly, after all, to regret a superstition that you had got rid of – to want to believe something that you knew in your bones to be untrue.

    Orwell provides us with no magic solution to this thorny problem.  Indeed, in the end his answer is singularly unsatisfying.  He suggests that we just get on with it and leave it at that.  As Dorothy glues together strips of paper, forming the boots, armor, and other accoutrements required for the next church play, she has stumbled into the solution without realizing it:

    The smell of glue was the answer to her prayer.  She did not know this.  She did not reflect, consciously, that the solution to her difficulty lay in accepting the fact that there was no solution; that if one gets on with the job that lies to hand, the ultimate purpose of the job fades into insignificance; that faith and no faith are very much the same provided that one is doing what is customary, useful and acceptable.  She could not formulate these thoughts as yet, she could only live them.  Much later, perhaps, she would formulate them and draw comfort from them.

    and, finally,

    Dorothy sliced two more sheets of brown paper into strips, and took up the breastplate to give it its final coating.  The problem of faith and no faith had vanished utterly from her mind.  It was beginning to get dark, but, too busy to stop and light the lamp, she worked on, pasting strip after strip of paper into place, with absorbed, with pious concentration, in the penetrating smell of the gluepot.

    Orwell didn’t want A Clergyman’s Daughter to be republished, unless, perhaps, in a cheap version to scare up a few pounds for his heirs.  No doubt he considered it too immature.  We can be grateful that his literary executors thought otherwise, else we might never have known of his struggles with the Meaning of Life problem so early in his career.  He didn’t spill much ink over the problem later on, but we must assume that he had found some more inspiring purpose to strive for than just “getting on with it.”  Weak and in pain, he fought to complete 1984 on his death bed with incredible tenacity and dedication.  It was a gift to all of us that didn’t follow him to the grave, but lived long after he was gone as the single most effective literary weapon against a threat that had materialized as Communism in his own day, but will likely always lurk among us in one form or another.

    And what of the Meaning of Life?  That’s a question we must all provide an answer for on our own.  None of the imaginary super-beings we have dreamed up over the years is likely to materialize to trivialize the search.  And just as Orwell wrote, whether we care to deal with the problem or not, there is no objective solution.  It must be subjective and individual.  It need not be any less compelling for all that.

     

     

  • E. O. Wilson’s “The Meaning of Human Existence:” Doubling Down on Group Selection

    Posted on December 31st, 2014 Helian 3 comments

    It’s great to see another title by E. O. Wilson.  Reading his books is like continuing a conversation with a wise old friend.  If you run into him on the street you don’t expect to hear him say anything radically different from what he’s said in the past.  However, you always look forward to chatting with him because he’s never merely repetitious or tiresome.   He always has some thought-provoking new insight or acute comment on the latest news.  At this stage in his life he also delights in puncturing the prevailing orthodoxies, without the least fear of the inevitable anathemas of the defenders of the faith.

    In his latest, The Meaning of Human Existence, he continues the open and unabashed defense of group selection that so rattled his peers in his previous book, The Social Conquest of Earth.  I’ve discussed some of the reasons for their unease in an earlier post.  In short, if it can really be shown that the role of group selection in human evolution has been as prominent as Wilson claims, it will seriously mar the legacy of such prominent public intellectuals as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, as well as a host of other prominent scientists, who have loudly and tirelessly insisted on the insignificance of group selection.  It will also require some serious adjustments to the fanciful yarn that currently passes as the “history” of the Blank Slate affair.  Obviously, Wilson is firmly convinced that he’s on to something, because he’s not letting up.  He dismisses the alternative inclusive fitness interpretation of evolution as unsupported by the evidence and at odds with the most up-to-date mathematical models.  In his words,

    Although the controversy between natural selection and inclusive fitness still flickers here and there, the assumptions of the theory of inclusive fitness have proved to be applicable only in a few extreme cases unlikely to occur on Earth on any other planet.  No example of inclusive fitness has been directly measured.  All that has been accomplished is an indirect analysis called the regressive method, which unfortunately has itself been mathematically invalidated.

    Interestingly, while embracing group selection, Wilson then explicitly agrees with one of the most prominent defenders of inclusive fitness, Richard Dawkins, on the significance of the gene:

    The use of the individual or group as the unit of heredity, rather than the gene, is an even more fundamental error.

    Very clever, that, a preemptive disarming of the predictable invention of straw men to attack group selection via the bogus claim that it implies that groups are the unit of selection.  The theory of group selection already has a fascinating, not to mention ironical, history, and its future promises to be no less entertaining.

    When it comes to the title of the book, Wilson himself lets us know early on that its just a forgivable form of “poetic license.”  In his words,

    In ordinary usage the word “meaning” implies intention.  Intention implies design, and design implies a designer.  Any entity, any process, or definition of any word itself is put into play as a result of an intended consequence in the mind of the designer.  This is the heart of the philosophical worldview of organized religions, and in particular their creation stories.  Humanity, it assumes, exists for a purpose.  Individuals have a purpose in being on Earth.  Both humanity and individuals have meaning.

    Wilson is right when he says that this is what most people understand by the term “meaning,” and he decidedly rejects the notion that the existence of such “meaning” is even possible later in the book by rejecting religious belief more bluntly than in any of his previous books.  He provides himself with a fig leaf in the form of a redefinition of “meaning” as follows:

    There is a second, broader way the word “meaning” is used, and a very different worldview implied.  It is that the accidents of history, not the intentions of a designer, are the source of meaning.

    I rather suspect most philosophers will find this redefinition unpalatable.  Beyond that, I won’t begrudge Wilson his fig leaf.  After all, if one takes the trouble to write books, one generally also has an interest in selling them.

    As noted above, another significant difference between this and Wilson’s earlier books is his decisive support for what one might call the “New Atheist” line, as set forth in books by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.  Obviously, Wilson has been carefully following the progress of the debate.  He rejects religions, significantly in both their secular as well as their traditional spiritual manifestations, as both false and dangerous, mainly because of their inevitable association with tribalism.  In his words,

    Religious warriors are not an anomaly.  It is a mistake to classify believers of particular religious and dogmatic religionlike ideologies into two groups, moderate versus extremist.  The true cause of hatred and violence is faith versus faith, an outward expression of the ancient instinct of tribalism.  Faith is the one thing that makes otherwise good people do bad things.

    and, embracing the ingroup/outgroup dichotomy in human moral behavior I’ve often alluded to on this blog,

    The great religions… are impediments to the grasp of reality needed to solve most social problems in the real world.  Their exquisitely human flaw is tribalism.  The instinctual force of tribalism in the genesis of religiosity is far stronger than the yearning for spirituality.  People deeply need membership in a group, whether religious or secular.  From a lifetime of emotional experience, they know that happiness, and indeed survival itself, require that they bond with oth3ers who share some amount of genetic kinship, language, moral beliefs, geographical location, social purpose, and dress code – preferably all of these but at least two or three for most purposes.  It is tribalism, not the moral tenets and humanitarian thought of pure religion, that makes good people do bad things.

    Finally, in a passage worthy of New Atheist Jerry Coyne himself, Wilson denounces both “accommodationists” and the obscurantist teachings of the “sophisticated Christians:”

    Most serious writers on religion conflate the transcendent quest for meaning with the tribalistic defense of creation myths.  They accept, or fear to deny, the existence of a personal deity.  They read into the creation myths humanity’s effort to communicate with the deity, as part of the search for an uncorrupted life now and beyond death.  Intellectual compromisers one and all, they include liberal theologians of the Niebuhr school, philosophers battening on learned ambiguity, literary admirers of C. S. Lewis, and others persuaded, after deep thought, that there most be Something Out There.  They tend to be unconscious of prehistory and the biological evolution of human instinct, both of which beg to shed light on this very important subject.

    In a word, Wilson has now positioned himself firmly in the New Atheist camp.  This is hardly likely to mollify many of the prominent New Atheists, who will remain bitter because of his promotion of group selection, but at this point in his career, Wilson can take their hostility pro granulum salis.

    There is much more of interest in The Meaning of Human Existence than I can cover in a blog post, such as Wilson’s rather vague reasons for insisting on the importance of the humanities in solving our problems, his rejection of interplanetary and/or interstellar colonization, and his speculations on the nature of alien life forms.  I can only suggest that interested readers buy the book.

  • The Objective Morality Delusion

    Posted on September 22nd, 2014 Helian 2 comments

    Atheists often scorn those who believe in the God Delusion.  The faithful, in turn, scorn those atheists who believe in the Objective Morality Delusion.  The scorn is understandable in both cases, but I give the nod to the faithful on this one.  Philosophers and theologians have come up with many refined and subtle arguments in favor of the existence of imaginary super beings.  The arguments in favor of imaginary objective moralities are threadbare by comparison.  I can hardly blame the true believers for laughing at the obvious imposture.  They don’t require such a crutch to maintain the illusion of superior virtue.  As a result, they see through the charade immediately.

    Let me put my own cards on the table.  I consider morality to be the expression of a subset of the innate human behavioral traits that exist as a result of evolution by natural selection.  It follows that I do not believe that the comments of Darwin, who specifically addressed the subject, can be simply ignored.  Neither do I believe that all the books and papers on the evolved wellsprings of morality that have been rolling of the presses lately can be simply ignored.  I agree with Hume, who pointed out that reason is a slave of the passions, and with Haidt, who wrote about the emotional dog and its rational tail, and take a dubious view of those who think the points made by either author can be simply ignored.  In short, I consider morality a purely subjective phenomenon.  There are, of course, many implications of this conclusion that are uncomfortable to the pious faithful and pious atheists alike.  However, if what I say is true, their discomfort will not make it untrue.

    I’ve discussed the arguments of Sam Harris and several other “objective moralists” in earlier posts.  As it happens, Daniel Fincke, another member of the club who writes the Camels with Hammers blog at Patheos.com has just chimed in.  Perhaps his comments on the subject will provide some insight into whether the supercilious smiles of the godly are out of place or not.

    Fincke has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Fordham, and teaches interactive philosophy classes online.  His comments appeared in the context of a pair of responses to Jerry Coyne, who differed with him on the subject at the latest Pennsylvania State Atheists Humanists Conference.  According to Fincke,

    When we talk about an endeavor being objective in the main or subjective in the main we’re talking about whether there can be objective principles that can often, at least theoretically, lead to determinations independent of our preferences.

    Of course, this statement that objective principles are those principles that are objective is somewhat lacking as a rigorous definition, but it’s on the right track.  Objective phenomena exist independently of the experiences or impressions in the minds of individuals.  Like Harris, Fincke associates morality with “human flourishing”:

    As to the nature of human flourishing, my basic view can be briefly boiled down to this. What we are as individuals is defined by the functional powers that constitute our being. In other words, we do not just “have” the powers of reasoning, emotional life, technological/artistic capacities, sociability, sexuality, our various bodily capabilities, etc., but we exist through such powers. We cannot exist without them. They constitute us ourselves. When they suffer, we suffer. Some humans might be drastically deficient in any number of them and there’s nothing they can do about that but make the best of it. But in general our inherent good is the objectively determinable good functioning of these basic powers (and all the subset powers that compose them and all the combined powers that integrate powers from across these roughly distinguishable kinds).

    One can almost guess where this is heading without reading the rest.  Like so many other “objective moralists,” Fincke will conflate that which is morally good with that which is “good” in the sense that it serves some useful purpose.  This gets us nowhere, because it merely begs the question of why the purpose served is itself morally good.  In what follows, our suspicions are amply confirmed.  For example, Fincke continues,

    Morality comes in at the stage of where any people who live lives impacting each other develop implicit or explicit rules and practices and judgments, etc. geared at cooperative living. Each of us has an interest in morality because we are social beings in vital ways.

    First, we socially depend for our basic flourishing on a society that is minimally orderly, where people are trustworthy, where we’re not swamped with chaotic violence, etc.

    Second, the more others around us are empowered to develop their functioning in their excellent powers is the more that they provide the means of us doing the same. So a society with greater functioning, powerful people is a society where we’ll be enriched by the things they create—be they technological or social—that help us thrive in our abilities.

    and so on.  In other words, moral rules are “objectively good” only in the sense that one can demonstrate their objective usefulness in advancing some other, higher “good.”  According to Fincke, this “higher good” is a “thriving, flourishing power” in each individual which is “beyond his body and beyond his awareness.”  Fine, but in that case the burden is still on him to demonstrate the objective nature of this “higher good.”  Unfortunately, he shrugs off the burden.  According to Fincke, the “higher good” is “objectively good” just because he says so.  For example,

    So, moral rules and practices and behaviors are a practical project. What objectively constitutes good instances of these are what lead to our objective good of maximally empowered functioning according to the abilities we have and what leads us to coordinate best with others for mutual empowerment on the long term.

    …with no explanation of why the “objective good” referred to is objectively good.  In a similar vein,

    The good of our powers thriving is inherently good for us because we are our powers. And the inherent good of a power thriving is objectively determinable in the sense that it has a characteristic function that makes it the power that it is.

    Again, Fincke doesn’t tell us why this “inherent good” is good in any objective sense, and why we should associate it with moral good at all.  Apparently we must simply take his word for it that he’s not just expressing a personal whim, but has some mysterious way of knowing that his “good” is both “objective” and “moral.”  Normally, when one claims objective existence for something, it must somehow manifest itself outside of the subjective minds of individuals.  If one is to believe in such an entity, one requires evidence of its independent existence.  That’s the main argument atheists have against the existence of God.  There’s no evidence for it.  How, then, is it reasonable for those same atheists to claim the objective existence of moral “good” with a similar lack of evidence.  The faithful can at least point to faith, and tell us that they believe because of the grace of God.  Atheists don’t have that luxury.  One of Fincke’s favorite arguments is as follows:

    Within this framework we can reason rationally. Does it mean we will always come to conclusive answers? No, of course not. Reasoning involves dealing with the real world and it’s empirical variables. Science can only go so far too, because we’re stuck with contingencies. You need information, sometimes impossible to precisely ascertain information about the future or the expected consequences of one path or another.

    That’s quite true, but science has something to back it up that Fincke can’t claim for his objective morality; data in the form of experimentally repeatable evidence.  We can be confident in the objective existence of electrons and photons, and on the fact that they don’t depend on our subjective whims for that existence, because we can observe and measure their physical characteristics.  To the best of my knowledge, neither Fincke nor Harris nor any of the rest have ever captured an objective “good” in their butterfly nets and produced any data regarding its physical or other qualities and characteristics.  If something is supposed to have an objective existence outside of our subjective minds, but we have not the faintest shred of evidence about it, we have only one alternative if we are to believe in it; blind faith.

    For Fincke, morality is infinitely malleable.  We can make it up as we go along to serve the “ultimate good” as our cultural and social circumstances change:

    Morality is a technological endeavor too. It’s one of determining what should be done for us all to live as well as we can collectively and individually. We should, as naturalists who have learned the lessons of empirical thinking in the hard sciences, determine our moral codes and practices according to what serves our purposes best.

    Unfortunately, this flies in the face of everything we have been learning recently about the innate wellsprings of morality.  It requires that we simply ignore it.  The claim that human flourishing is the ultimate good, and that morality is an objective something that exists to serve this end excludes any evolutionary contribution to morality whatsoever.  Some claim that evolution may occur as high as the level of groups, but no process or mathematical model has yet been heard of that predicts that it can occur at the level of the human species as a whole.

    If Fincke is right, then there can be no analogs of morality in animals, as claimed not only by Darwin, but by many others after him, and as suggested in Wild Justice by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce and in several other recent books on the subject.  Objective moral rules as he describes then would only be discoverable by highly intelligent creatures through the exercise of high-powered reasoning that is beyond the capacity of animals or, for that matter even humans other than Fincke and a few other enlightened philosophers, whom we must apparently depend on forevermore to explain things to us.  No doubt  the popes would all have loved this line of reasoning.  These purported rules exist to support an end that can never be the direct result of natural selection, as it only applies at a level where selection does not occur.

    Again, if Fincke is right, then the emotions we associate with morality become absurd.  After all, what room is there for emotion in deriving perfectly rational “moral rules” from some “objective” ultimate good?  Why, indeed, do such reactions as virtuous indignation and moral outrage exist?  They are, after all, emotional rather than reasonable, and they can be observed across all cultures.  If true moral good is only discoverable by gurus like Fincke, and often contradicts our natural appetites and proclivities, where do these emotions come from?  Are they, as we were informed by the Blank Slaters of old, merely learned, along with such things as the pleasure we feel from eating when hungry, and the orgasms we experience during sex?  If not, how can we possibly explain their existence?  Here’s another excerpt from Fincke’s posts that raises some doubts about his “objective morality.”

    People seem to recognize this readily with respect to every art–that doing it in the way that evinces excellent ability and has the result effect of empowering others is obviously desirable over the way that doesn’t–except when it comes to something like ruling or acquiring wealth. In those cases, people start talking like they think mere domination and accumulation is sufficiently desirable. But there’s no reason to think that’s correct. The ruler is a failure if they cannot create a powerful citizenry. What is the intrinsic goodness of merely getting your way compared to the actual creative power, the actual excellent ability, to create greater flourishing through your efforts. The great ruler, by the ruler’s own internal standards of success, should obviously be to rule for generations even beyond death. To do that means to be so shrewd in one’s decisions that what one builds outlives you and thrives beyond your mortal coil. It means to be a contributor to the thriving of your citizens while you’re alive so you can take credit for your role in their thriving (and for as many subsequent generations as possible).

    and,

    Just because some tyrants realize that’s impossible because they’re incompetent to create that and keep power and so instead choose to rule a graveyard through terror doesn’t mean those tyrants are being rational. They’re functioning badly. They’re epically failing to do the actually powerful task of ruling.

    Genghis Khan might beg to differ.  In spite of recent attempts to rehabilitate him, it’s not an exaggeration to say he ruled a graveyard through terror throughout much of Asia, and was, therefore, an epic failure according to Fincke.  However, he left millions of descendants throughout the continent.  He would certainly have regarded this outcome as “good” and “powerful.”  It’s a human legacy that will certainly last much longer than the constitution of any state, or the opinion harbored by certain intellectuals in the 21st century concerning “human flourishing.”  Indeed, it’s a legacy that has the potential to last for billions of years, as demonstrated by the reality of our own existence as descendants of creatures who lived that long ago in the past.  How can we detect or identify an objective rule according to which the great Khan’s good is not really good, but evil?  Obviously, what we are looking for here is something more compelling than Fincke’s opinion on the matter.  According to Fincke,

    …we set up moral systems to regulate and make it so people are able to resist the temptation to think in short term, microlevel, temporarily selfish ways about what is good for them.

    Again, if moral systems are just something we “set up” at will to serve Fincke’s “inherent and ultimate good,” then Hume must be wrong.  Reason can’t be the slave of the passions.  Rather, the passions must be suppressed to serve reason.  Morality cannot possibly be associated with evolution in any way, because it would be impossible to “set up” the innate predispositions that would presumably be the result.  As it happens, our species already has extensive experience with “setting up” just such a moral system as Fincke describes, based on “science” and devoted to the ultimate goal of “human flourishing.”  It was called Communism.  It didn’t work.  As E. O. Wilson famously put it, “Great theory, wrong species.”  Am I being paranoid if I would prefer, on behalf of myself and my species, to avoid trying it twice?

    In the end, Fincke’s arguments really boil down to a statement of subjective morality in a nutshell:  “Human flourishing as defined by me and right-thinking individuals like me is the ultimate good, because I say so.”

     

  • Joshua Greene’s “Moral Tribes”: The Minting of a New Morality

    Posted on January 24th, 2014 Helian No comments

    Joshua Greene is a professor of psychology at Harvard.  In reality, he’s not proposing an entirely new morality, but an updated version of John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism.  Greene refers to it as “Deep Pragmatism.” He describes his goal in writing Moral Tribes as follows:

    This book is an attempt to understand morality from the ground up.  It’s about understanding what morality is, how it got here, and how it’s implemented in our brains.  It’s about understanding the deep structure of moral problems as well as the differences between the problems that our brains were designed to solve and the distinctively modern problems we face today.  Finally, it’s about taking this new understanding of morality and turning it into a universal moral philosophy that members of all human tribes can share.

    I won’t go into too much detail about Greene’s version of utilitarianism, or his rationale for proposing it.  Suffice it to say that Greene is familiar with Darwin.  He knows that our moral emotions exist because they promoted our survival and procreation.  In other words, they evolved, as he puts it, as a solution to the Tragedy of the Commons, familiar to students of philosophy.  However, while they solved that problem by promoting cooperation within groups, they did nothing to solve the problem of hostility between groups.  In Greene’s words,

    Our moral brains did not evolve for cooperation between groups (at least not all groups).  How do we know this?  Why couldn’t morality have evolved to promote cooperation in a more general way?  Because universal cooperation is inconsistent with the principles governing evolution by natural selection.

    In other words, Greene knows about ingroups and outgroups.   He refers to this lack of universal cooperation as the “Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.”  As he puts it,

    Morality did not evolve to promote universal cooperation.  On the contrary, it evolved as a device for successful intergroup competition.  In other words, morality evolved to avert the Tragedy of the Commons, but it did not evolve to avert the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.

    In proposing a solution to this problem, Greene introduces us to a metaphor that appears repeatedly throughout the rest of the book.  He compares the human moral machinery to a camera that has both an automatic, point and shoot mode and a manual mode.  It’s basically just a revamped version of the old reason versus untamed emotion dichotomy that has busied philosophers since Plato’s allegory of the chariot.  In general, the automatic mode is fine for dealing with problems within groups.  However, as Greene puts it,

    …the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality is a tragedy of moral inflexibility.  There is strife on the new pastures not because herders are hopelessly selfish, immoral, or amoral, but because they cannot step outside their respective moral perspectives.  How should they think?  The answer is now obvious:  They should shift into manual mode.

    In other words, we need to stop and think.  However, as he points out, “reasoning has no end of its own.”  I other words, he explicitly agrees with Hume, who wrote that reason is a “slave of the passions,” noting that “reason cannot produce good decisions without some kind of emotional input, however indirect.”  And what is that emotional input to be?  Basically, the desire for “happiness,” that sine qua non of utilitarians everywhere, combined with impartiality, which Greene claims is the “essence of morality.”  Now, of these two, impartiality is the only one that really has anything to do with human moral emotions per se.  Assuming for the sake of argument that happiness, and particularly the esoteric version in which utilitarians take such delight, is something we all want, it can hardly be said that people who are unhappy are also evil, and vice versa.  Focusing on impartiality, Greene writes,

    First, the human manual mode is, by nature, a cost-benefit reasoning system that aims for optimal consequences.  Second, the human manual mode is susceptible to the ideal of impartiality.  And, I submit, this susceptibility is not tribe-specific.  Members of any tribe can get the idea behind the Golden Rule.  Put these two things together and we get manual modes that aspire, however imperfectly, to produce consequences that are optimal from an impartial perspective, giving equal weight to all people.

    Here I can but wonder what species Greene is talking about.  It certainly isn’t ours.  I could cite dozens of passages in his own book that demonstrate that he himself has anything but an “impartial perspective.”  In any case, the result of brewing together happiness and impartiality to create what Greene refers to as a new “metamorality” is predictable.  It stands human morality completely on its head.  Divorced completely from the reasons it evolved to begin with, this new utilitarian morality, which Greene likes to refer to as “Deep Pragmatism,” insists that we reject the “inflexible, automatic mode, moral gizmos” that belong to the normal human complement of moral emotions whenever they don’t promote “happiness.”  We are not referring to our own happiness here.  Rather, we are to become servants of the happiness of all mankind.  As Greene puts it,

    Utilitarianism is a very egalitarian philosophy, asking the haves to do a lot for the have-nots.  Were you to wake up tomorrow as a born-again utilitarian, the biggest change in your life would be your newfound devotion to helping unfortunate others.

    We can excuse Mill for promoting such a philosophy.  He wrote before his philosophy could be informed by work of Darwin.  As a result, even though he was aware of contemporary theories claiming an innate basis to moral behavior, he rejected them.  In other words, he was a Blank Slater, though certainly not in the same sense as the ideologically motivated Blank Slaters who came after him, or the religiously motivated Blank Slaters, like Locke, who came before him.  As a result, he believed that the human mind could adopt virtually any morality, and concluded that the best one would be that which was also most useful.  Clearly, he realized that, if morality were innate, it would have profound implications for his theories.  As I have written elsewhere, I think it highly probable that, if he had lived in our times, he would have put two and two together and rejected utilitarianism.

    Not so Greene.   As he puts it,

    We can, for example, donate money to faraway strangers without expecting anything in return.  From a biological point of view, this is just a backfiring glitch, much like the invention of birth control.  But from our point of view as moral beings who can kick away the evolutionary ladder, it may be exactly what we want.  Morality is more than what it evolved to be.

    Kick away the evolutionary ladder?  Turn morality on its head?  Such notions are delusional unless you believe in some kind of objective “moral truth.”  Greene claims that he’s “agnostic” when it comes to the idea of moral truth, and it doesn’t really matter as far as utilitarianism is concerned, but that’s nonsense.  There has to be some reason for rejecting normal human “automatic mode” moral emotions in favor of some “meta-morality” that serves purposes that are diametrically opposed to the reasons that moral emotions evolved to begin with, and I can think of no other reason than an irrational faith in some kind of objective moral truth.  And in spite of his disclaimers, one can cite dozens of passages in his book that demonstrate that he does embrace what Mill referred to as “transcendental morality.”  For example,

    (referring to someone in a fine Italian suit that will be ruined if he wades into a pond to save a drowning child) Is it morally acceptable to let this child drown in order to save your suit?  Clearly not, we say.  That would be morally monstrous.

    Utilitarianism says that we should do whatever really works best, in the long run, and not just for the moment.  (Implies that there is a universal standard of what is “best.”)

    Happiness is the ur-value, the Higgs boson of normativity, the value that gives other values their value.

    We’ll dispense with the not especially moral goal of spreading genes and focus instead on the more proximate goal of cooperation.

    In other words, dangling before Greene’s imagination is a Morality that has nothing to do with the reasons that led to the evolution of moral behavior to begin with.  I have different goals.  I don’t hide them behind a smokescreen of “meta-morality.”  They are, first, to promote the survival of my own genes, second, to promote the survival of my species, and third, to promote the survival of terrestrial life.  I do not consider my conscious mind anything but a transitory, evolved aspect of my phenotype, but to that mind there is something sublime and majestic in being the link in a chain of life that has existed for billions of years.  The idea that I will be the last link in that chain is repugnant to me.  Serving as a “happiness pump” for a huge colony of happy ants that has no perceptible reason for existing except to “flourish” and be “happy” is completely repugnant to me.

    Greene, of course, is of a different opinion.  I agree that it may be possible to sort out such differences in “manual mode,” but one that is based as much as possible on reason and that takes as little account of morality as possible.  As far as I’m concerned, nothing could be more selfish than attempting to tart up my own whims as a “meta-morality.”  The result of such attempts in the past should serve as a sufficient deterrent from trying it again, even with a philosophy as transparently impractical to implement as utilitarianism.  Greene is well aware of these potential drawbacks.  He writes,

    History offers no shortage of grand utopian visions gone bad, including the rise and (nearly complete) fall of communism during the twentieth century.  Communists such as Stalin and Mao justified thousands of murders, millions more deaths from starvation, and repressive totalitarian governments in the name of the “greater good.”  Shouldn’t we be very wary of people with big plans who say that it’s all for the greater good?  Yes, we should.  Especially when those big plans call for big sacrifices.  And especially, especially when the people making the sacrifices (or being sacrificed!) are not the ones making the big plans.  But this wariness is perfectly pragmatic, utilitarian wariness.  What we’re talking about here is avoiding bad consequences.  Aiming for the greater good does not mean blindly following any charismatic leader who says that it’s all for the greater good.  That’s a recipe for disaster.

    So Greene thinks that the whole Communist debacle, with its gestation period of well over a century, during which time its development was carried forward by a host of convinced theorists, many of whom were neither charismatic themselves nor particularly attracted to charismatic leaders, could have easily been avoided if its adepts had just been “pragmatic,” and had been more circumspect in their choice of leaders?  Sorry, but I think a better way to avoid such catastrophes in the future would be to stop cobbling together new “meta-moralities” altogether.

    We cannot dispense with morality, at least at the level of individual interactions.  We’re not smart enough to do without it.  That said, we can at least attempt to understand its evolutionary roots and the reasons for its existence, and, in the realization that the traits we associate with moral behavior evolved at times utterly unlike the present, do our best to keep our moral emotions from blowing up in our faces.  Greene’s utilitarianism will never be a miraculous solution to the “Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.”  There will always be ingroups and outgroups, and they will always be hostile to each other, manual mode or no manual mode.  What could possibly be more manifest than the furious hostility of Greene’s own liberal tribe to their conservation outgroup?  If we are to survive, we must learn to manage this hostility, and creating yet another new moral system seems to me an extremely unpromising approach to the problem.

     

     

  • Atheism and the Virtue of Deceit; Musings on the Purpose and Meaning of Life

    Posted on December 12th, 2013 Helian 1 comment

    According to fellow atheist Bart Ehrman, whose books are an excellent tonic for the true believers, there are many clergymen who are no longer believers themselves.  I suppose they have many ways of rationalizing their behavior to themselves, one of which is the belief that by deceiving their flocks they are actually doing “good.”  Journalist David V. Johnson recently defended this point of view in an article he wrote for 3 Quarks Daily entitled, “A Refutation of the Undergraduate Atheists.”  “Undergraduate Atheists” is one of the many pejorative terms used by philosophers with delusions of grandeur in referring to the infidel triumvirate of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris.  An atheist himself, Johnson, takes issue with what he calls the “Undergraduate Atheist Thesis,” or UAT, which he states simply as the belief that, “Humanity would be better off without religious belief.”

    Johnson begins by giving a highly distilled version of “San Manuel Bueno, Martir (Saint Manuel the Good, Martyr),” a novella by Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno.  The action takes place in the village of Valverde de Lucerna, where the spiritual needs of the people are ministered to by Don Manuel, a saintly Catholic priest.  He has a run in with Lazaro, a local who has returned from a sojourn in America as a confirmed atheist.  The two spar for a while, until the scales finally fall from Lazaro’s eyes, and he concludes that Don Manuel is right when he advises, “Leave them alone, as long as it consoles them.  It is better for them to believe it all, even contradictory things, than not to believe in anything.”  But wait, there’s a twist.  It turns out that, like Lazaro, Don Manuel is also an atheist.  However, convinced that they must preserve the “happiness” of the villagers, they continue ministering to their spiritual needs, never revealing the truth about their own unbelief, until both die in the odor of sanctity.

    The story is a lot more complex than the dumbed down version given by Johnson.  For example, Don Manuel is himself very unhappy, tormented by what seems to him the meaninglessness of life and the knowledge that he will die with no hope of the hereafter.  He is not so blithely convinced of the rightness of what he is doing as Johnson suggests, and agonizes over whether he is really serving the villagers best interests by deceiving them.  He has half convinced himself that Christ himself was also an atheist, etc.  It’s actually a very interesting read, and there’s an English version at the above link.

    Be that as it may, Johnson embraces his simplified version as an antidote to UAT.  As he puts it,

    …demonstrating the truth of UAT would require an enormous calculation of the two competing scenarios. It demands that we add up all the good and bad consequent on human beings being religious, from the beginning to the end of human history, and all the good and bad consequent on human beings not being religious. We are then supposed to compare the two totals and see which version of human history winds up better.

    According to Johnson, such a calculation is hopelessly complicated, and we therefore “have reason to suspend judgment about UAT.”  In fact, what is hopeless is the notion that we shouldn’t make judgments until we know every fact that might have some bearing on the case.  Fortunately, Mother Nature knew better, and gave us the capacity to decide based on limited data as befits creatures with limited intelligence.  We would never make any decisions if we always waited until we were certain about their outcome.

    I might add that this familiar wrangling over whether religion is “good” or “bad” is really neither here nor there as far as the question of whether God actually exists is concerned.  After all, what does it matter if the argument is decided one way or the other if there actually is a God?  Is anyone really going to risk frying in hell for quadrillions and quintillions of years, just for starters, by defying God and explaining to Him that he is “immoral” because, on balance, belief in Him hasn’t made mankind’s lot “better?”  If there is no God to begin with, then one isn’t likely to suddenly pop into existence merely because we have determined that things would be “better” that way.  In other words, the bearing of this whole argument on whether there actually is a God or not is nil.

    Of course, all this is irrelevant to Johnson.  After all, he’s an atheist himself.  His “Anti-Undergraduate Atheist Thesis” is not that Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris are wrong about the non-existence of God.  Rather, it is that a self-appointed elite of atheists should bamboozle the rest of us into believing in God in spite of that “for our own good.”  Plunging ahead with his indictment of these “New Atheists” he writes,

    Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and their followers have something remarkably in common with religionists: they claim to know something (UAT) that cannot, in fact, be known and must be accepted on faith. The truth is that we cannot know what humanity would be like without religious belief, because humanity in that scenario would be so much unlike us that it would be impossible to determine what it would be like in that alternate universe. Their inability to acknowledge the immense calculation that would be required is unscientific. Their conclusion is as intolerant and inimical to the liberal tradition as the ranting of any superstitious windbag.

    Of course, based on his own logic, those who embrace Johnson’s Anti-UAT are also “claiming to know something that cannot be known,” and must hang their heads and join the ranks of the “ranting, superstitious windbags.”  However, he spares that faction such harsh judgment, apparently because he happens to belong to it himself.  As he puts it,

    I suspect the scales might tip the other way.  Why? For the same reasons as San Manuel Bueno’s. The psychological consequences of religious faith — the deep satisfaction, reduction of existential anxiety and feeling of security and meaning it provides — would represent an enormous and underappreciated part of the calculation. Imagine the billions of believers that have lived, live now, or will live, and consider what life is like for them from the inside. Consider the tremendous boon in happiness for all of them in knowing, in the way a believer knows, that their lives and the universe are imbued with meaning, that there is a cosmic destiny in which they play a part, that they do not suffer in vain, that their death is not final but merely a transition to a better existence.

    This the triumphant vindication of life in The Matrix.  Far be it from me to attempt any judgment of which of these two competing atheist world views is “better,” or whether either of them is even “good.”  As my readers know, I don’t admit the possibility of making an objective judgment one way or the other.  However, I certainly do have some thoughts concerning my own subjective opinion of what’s “good” for me.  I might add in passing that the Spanish “villagers” did as well, because they expressed their fury at those who were “enlightening” them by destroying churches in Barcelona and other parts of Spain at the start of the Spanish Civil War.  I don’t care to have anyone feeding me a pack of lies based on their conclusion that it’s for my own good.  I’ve found that most of us, regardless of how ignorant we might appear to those who imagine themselves our intellectual betters, are very astute at deciding for ourselves what’s “for our own good,” and certainly better at it than any self-appointed intellectual elite.  Furthermore, it seems to me that, regardless of what ends we happen to have in mind, we are a great deal more likely to achieve them if the actions we take in pursuing them are based on the truth rather than on pleasant lies.  Indeed, the very ends we seek will vary strongly depending on whether we choose them based on facts or illusions.  That will be the case regardless of how good we are as a species at ascertaining the truth, and regardless of whether we can ever have a certain knowledge of the truth or not.  Certainly, the truth is illusive, but we are more likely to approach it by actually seeking it than by promoting illusions that are supposed by the self-anointed guardians of our spiritual well-being to be “for our own good.”

    As for the notion that our fundamental goal in life should be the pursuit of some kind of illusory and drugged happiness, I consider it absurd.  Why is it that we are capable of being happy to begin with?  Like almost everything else of any real significance about us, we can be happy because, and only because, that capacity happened to increase the probability that we would survive and reproduce.  It follows that, to the extent that we can even speak of an “objective” end, happiness is purely secondary.

    What, then, of the purpose and meaning of life?  I can only speak for myself, but as an atheist I find a purpose and meaning and grandeur in life that seems to me incomparably preferable to the tinsel paradises of the true believers.  All it takes to come to that conclusion is to stop taking life for granted.  Look at yourself in the mirror!  It’s incredibly, wonderfully improbable that a creature like you, with hands, and eyes, and a heart, and a brain, not to mention all this “stuff” around us are even here.  As a “purpose” and a “meaning of life” it may only be my subjective whim, but I have a passionate desire that this little flicker of life in the middle of a vast universe, a flicker that may very well be unique, will continue.  For it to continue, it is not necessary for me to be happy.  It is necessary for me to survive and reproduce.  Beyond that it is necessary for me to seek to insure the survival of my species, and beyond that to seek to insure the survival of life itself.  Are these things objectively necessary?  In short, no.  In the end, they are just personal whims, but I’m still passionate about them for all that.  Why?  Perhaps because virtually everything about me exists because it happened to promote those goals.  If I failed to pursue those goals, I would be a sick and dysfunctional biological entity, and it displeases me to think of myself in those terms.  Hence, my, admittedly subjective and personal, purpose in life.

    But why should “I” have a purpose in life?  Don’t “I” blink into existence, and then back out of it in a moment?  What could possibly be the point if I’m only going to be here for a moment, and then cease to exist forever?  I think that question is motivated by a fundamental confusion over who “I” am.  After all, what is really essential about “me”?  It can’t be my conscious mind.  I am quite confident that it really has just popped into existence for a moment, and will soon die forever.  It follows that my consciousness can only be ancillary and secondary to what is really essential about “me”.  It would be absurd, and quite unparsimonious of Nature, if everything about me were to suffer the same fate.

    So the question becomes, what is it about me that won’t necessarily suffer that fate?  It is, of course, my genes.  In three and a half billion years, they, and the precursors that gave rise to them, have never died.  That have all been links in an unbroken chain of life stretching back over an almost inconceivably long time, and that can potentially stretch on an inconceivably long time into the future.  “I” am the link in the chain that exists in the here and now, and that will determine whether the chain will continue, or be snuffed out.  I know what my choice is.  It is a choice that, as far as I am concerned, gives an abiding meaning and purpose to my life.  It is also, of course, a “selfish” choice, and I have nothing to say about what others “should” do, because there is no objective answer to that question.  You must decide for yourself.

    UPDATE:  Jerry Coyne’s reaction to Johnson’s article may be found here.