Inebriation makes no pretensions to cosmic meaning or lasting significance. In Western culture at least, it’s hard to imagine anyone getting drunk or high with motives like duty or fulfillment or meaning. No, we do such things quite simply because they feel good.
And the ways in which they feel good are unadorned, direct, chemical. They unceremoniously push neurological buttons, pull neurological strings.
One could therefore see inebriation as making the twofold profession that we are only brains, only chemicals, only matter; and we have no higher hope or duty or purpose than mere pleasure.
I’ve slowly worked through your paper “Religious Belief as Ultimate Belief,” in the later version you sent on June 5th. But honestly… I still see broadly the same problems that I’ve been seeing, and we’ve been discussing. I won’t try to rehash all we’ve said, or address all you write in this paper. Instead I’ll make just one point.
Your project seems to depend on insisting up front that religious belief is not objective, but then sneaking a bit of objective religious belief in the back door. The project is abstract enough and sophisticated enough that the objective bit you depend on affirming can be pretty slippery and hard to pin down. But if we look at the big picture of what you’re trying to do, and we fully give up all objective religious claims, then the problematic dependence on a bit of objective religious belief should be apparent. Squarely facing these issues and speaking clearly about them seems to leave the project either saying something contradictory, or else saying nothing substantive.
I don’t expect any pushback on the first part of this point. Your claims that religious belief of the sort you’re calling faith is not objective—these claims appear to be pretty clear and pretty central. You identify objective belief about religious topics, and sharply distinguish this from the sort of belief with which you are concerned, and which you consider fundamental, and which you call faith. You write that “the belief of faith… implies complete subjectivity,” and that “The question of God then, is not a theoretical question in any way, but instead it is the question of our own ‘to be or not to be.’” In short, you insist that religious belief is not objective. Right?
The second part of my point will be the crux. I’m suggesting that despite your assertion that religious belief isn’t objective, you nonetheless smuggle in some objective religious belief. Your claims may not be as straightforward as the claim that a God exists or the claim that Jesus rose from the dead, but they are objective claims nonetheless.
You write that “the only proper object of faith is God,” and “God overcomes the difference between subject and object.” You also write of “the transcendent ground of self and world,” and “the eternal ground of self and world,” and “that Reality which transcends subject and object.”
You are making objective religious claims about reality, and God, and faith in God. And you can redefine God or faith or any other terms all you want—you’re still making some sort of objective claims.
Unless, of course, you’re not. But if you are truly not making any objective claims here, then you are not actually saying anything substantive.
Let me flesh this out a little. You speak of God. Someone might object right there, and say Hey, you’re making objective claims about God! But using the abstraction and sophistication I spoke of earlier, you answer something along the lines of No, I’m not making objective claims, since I’m not speaking of a God that is an object, but rather a God that transcends this notion of being an object of objective knowledge, etc.
Ok, sure, your claims about God aren’t as direct as most. You won’t call them objective claims, and you won’t tie yourself to the particulars of propositions about this God or a revelation from this God, and you won’t even claim that God “exists.” So things seem pretty slippery. And it may seem like your claims about God have managed to liberate themselves from all the dependencies and vulnerabilities of most claims about God.
But the catch is this: your project is still dependent upon claims about God. You still need to speak in terms of God, and transcendence, and eternity. And while the project may never depend upon such speech meaning one particular thing, it does depend upon it meaning something. Such speech steps in at multiple points with crucial intellectual and emotional support. This support could be rooted in a broad range of supernatural realities. But the problem is that it cannot be rooted solely in the natural reality we observe.
You are not dependent upon ultimate reality being the Personal God of traditional theism. But you are dependent upon ultimate reality being something more than bare naturalism. You don’t need Jesus, but you do need something more than matter. So your claims may be looser than many, but this makes them no less objective.
Let’s trace how this stuff plays out in one particular passage.
For a proposition to function as a religious symbol means that it utilizes some aspect of finite reality to point beyond itself to the transcendent ground of self and world. I am suggesting that not only can ontological subjects and predicates that are used in propositions function symbolically (e.g., Jesus, God), but that the linguistic propositions themselves can take on a symbolic function.
To express faith through a proposition is not necessarily to believe the proposition objectively at all. As an expression of faith, the content of the proposition must become in some way transparent to the eternal ground of self and world. In this way the objective truth of the proposition is less crucial than the extent to which the proposition is able to serve its role as being transparent to that Reality which transcends subject and object.
This passage contains those phrases I’d already flagged about “the transcendent ground of self and world,” and “the eternal ground of self and world,” and “that Reality which transcends subject and object.” And clearly, those phrases are playing a role here. You can’t just jettison them, and leave the rest as it is. Nor, more interestingly, can you replace them with simple naturalism.
Your analysis of religious symbolism relies upon the symbol pointing beyond itself to “the transcendent ground of self and world.” Granted, you don’t rely upon this transcendent ground being a God who created and sustains both self and world, or upon some other particular religious picture. But you do rely upon that ground being something religious or supernatural or, as you put it, transcendent. Bare and unadorned naturalism simply will not do, it seems. For what could you mean by speaking of a religious symbol that points to… an ancient cosmic explosion, and unguided evolution, and the bits we’ve figured out about physics and chemistry? Yes, strictly speaking, you certainly could have symbols pointing to the naturalistic accounts of self and world. But there would be nothing transcendent about this, and this would seem to have no place at all in your project. I can’t see how it would do anything to support or legitimize or vindicate religious faith, or a depth to experience, or an ultimate meaning or morality.
The problems are the same toward the end of this passage, where you talk about propositions “being transparent to that Reality which transcends subject and object.” You don’t rely on this Reality being God, but you do rely on something more than the natural. I don’t see how the natural world we observe can give rise to Tillich’s whole apparatus of the subject-object distinction, and then the transcendence thereof. We certainly have no reason to revere natural reality as “Reality,” or use put it to the religious uses that you depend upon.
So that’s how I see your dilemma. You use religious language that makes flexible, but objective, claims. If you do indeed intend these objective meanings, then this both contradicts your position that religious belief is not objective, and also exposes your project to the vulnerabilities that you’d so hoped to avoid. If you do not intend the objective meanings, then the religious language becomes unable to serve the purposes for which you use it.
Are you making objective religious claims or not? If you are, then you’re saying contradictory things. But if you’re not, then you seem to be left saying nothing at all.
From Man of La Mancha, in what seems to be one of several versions:
I have lived nearly fifty years, and I have seen life as it is. Pain, misery, hunger… cruelty beyond belief. I have heard the singing from taverns and the moans from bundles of filth on the streets. I have been a soldier and seen my comrades fall in battle… or die more slowly under the lash in Africa. I have held them in my arms at the final moment. These were men who saw life as it is, yet they died despairing. No glory, no gallant last words… only their eyes filled with confusion, whimpering the question, “Why?”
I do not think they asked why they were dying, but why they had lived. When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Too much sanity may be madness. To seek treasure where there is only trash. Perhaps to be practical is madness. And maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it ought to be.
I definitely gave further thought to a lot of the things we talked about… but now that’s buried under weeks of intense reading and meeting and conversing, and so I’m honestly a bit fuzzy. So if I’m missing the mark, please say a bit more to jog my memory.
Our morality seems to be roughly what conscious beings like us necessarily grow into. But conscious beings wouldn’t have to be very much like us. Consider, for example, the attached musing about termite morality. And as strikingly as it contrasts with human morality, appreciate the fact that termites are a fellow social animal. Just imagine what sort of moral code sharks might espouse.
More fundamentally, I’d ask what’s relevantly special about consciousness. One can make the move of trying to establish some ellipse about begin more truly or fully conscious/agents/human/whatever when thinking or acting in some particular way that most people think or act. But I don’t see how that gets us anywhere.
So in the end, I’m not sure I see any payout from efforts to establish morality as some necessary result of consciousness.
Lastly, you wrote, “You strike me as one who had a rather hard landing falling off the fairy-tale bus. You recognized the myth as myth, but you seem to be allowing the myth to continue to control your life… just in a negative way. It’s only from within the myth that the loss of ‘that’ god = ultimate meaninglessness. Seems to me it’s time to really give the myth the boot. It’s time to let the meaning of life be worked out in the living, not deduced from the perceived failure of one system. Who knows, maybe someday you’ll be able to reappropriate myth in its legitimate form, but for now, you might need even more distance.”
I grant that I’m in the process of adjusting. I’m more accustomed to this world view than I was at first, and I hope to grow more accustomed still. So in that sense, yeah, Christianity is still exerting some control over my life.
But that’s it. I contend that my views on meaning and morality are not being improperly dictated or influence by Christianity. There’s still some unfinished adjusting and acclimating for my emotions and habits and such, but intellectually, I am not just standing in Christianity’s shadow, or carrying around Christian baggage. I contend that it is not only from within Christianity that naturalism precludes supernatural meaning. I contend that the existence or nonexistence of such a supernatural (or ultimate or transcendent) meaning is to be worked out precisely by the sorts of deduction I engage in, drawing on things including the failure of Christianity, and is not to be worked out “in the living.”
First, I see no incoherence in the Christian account of ultimate meaning. It seems to me to be internally consistent and logically possible, rather than malformed nonsense about round squares or slithy toves or purple monkey dishwashers.
Second, it turns out that most of us talk about something resembling this Christian account. We want to fulfill a purpose, and be part of something much bigger than ourselves, and make a difference, and live on after we die, and focus on things that matter. Such talk, again, bears a resemblance to the Christian account. We can match it up to that Christian account, and powerfully justify and expand it. You want to fulfill your purpose? Well how about that! It so happens that God has a purpose for you, and you can fulfill it! Etc.
But third, we cannot give the same sorts justifications under metaphysical naturalism. Sure, we’re resourceful, and we can usually give something. But very rarely anything comparable. You want to fulfill your purpose? Well… uh, you can imagine one and then fulfill that, and call it even. How does that sound? Etc.
Fourth, there are religions other than Christianity that give accounts of meaning that broadly resemble the Christian one. Maybe your purpose isn’t most clearly or directly or ultimately rooted in a Personal God and His will, but instead in the the dharma of the universe. But this very different theology still touches that same desire to fulfill a purpose, and can justify it, and say something along the lines of yessir, you have a purpose, and you can fulfill it! There are lots of religions that can justify these sorts of words and desires in lots of ways. And there are infinite logical possibilities for justifying them.
But if we confine ourselves to only the material universe we can observe, then we can’t do much justifying. We’re back at say uh… you can imagine a purpose and then fulfill it, if you want. Because we neither observe, nor are able to deduce, a purpose for human life that bears any resemblance to the religious ones, or a bigger something as big as the religious ones, or a significance as deep and indelible as the religious ones, or a personal dignity or importance approaching many religious ones, or a permanence even holding a candle to eternity.
Those religious qualifications I have to tack on may seem like a weak spot. But I really don’t think they are. Yes, none of those religious accounts are true—I know! That’s much of the goddamn point! But the other part of the point is that the religious accounts bear a certain resemblance to one another, and to near-universal human desires and intuitions and emotions.
And naturalism does not share this resemblance. There—that’s my point.
Evolution subsequently lends it powerful support. Because as I’ve written about in a few places, it provides a perfectly plausible account of how we could come to be predisposed toward false beliefs—e.g. religion in general, and an ultimate meaning to life in particular. From a starting point of naturalism and no ultimate meaning to life, we could reasonably predict that most people would be supernaturalists who believe in some ultimate meaning.
You closed that section by suggesting that “It’s time to let the meaning of life be worked out in the living, not deduced from the perceived failure of one system.” This seems to be playing on an ambiguity of language. Do a lot of people feel in living that life is meaningful, with little or no place for abstract philosophizing or theologizing? Absolutely. And could I try to pull off the same thing? There’s certainly no imperative to the contrary.
But whatever feelings or thoughts I might some day work up, our current topic is what those feelings or thoughts might match up with. Is there anything beyond what I might feel or think? Is there a divine purpose or a universal dharma or path toward enlightenment or an ideal of virtue or a personal destiny? It’s all well and good to ask about how I feel or think about such matters. Those are perfectly good questions. But there are also perfectly good, and perfectly distinct, questions about how those matters actually stand in reality outside of my skull. And there’s no sense in trying to work those questions out “in the living” as over and against things like deduction and evidence. Living might furnish its own crucial evidence, and that’s fine. But the move to just dive into life and feel like it’s ultimately meaningful, even if reason and evidence still insist otherwise—that move is simply no sort of answer to our present question. It’s fine suggestion, and a fine prospect, but not a fine answer about ultimate meaning.
… I guess I did speak pretty loosely about my agnosticism, eh? Ok, no certainty—we’ve got that much established. But what’s with claiming no-knowledge up front, and then going on to talk about my knowledge just the same as ever? Good question.
There’s obviously a whole spectrum of certainty along which one might fall in regard to a particular belief. In saying that I’m agnostic about the truth of Christianity, or the existence of any God, or the ultimate meaning of human life, I’m not saying that I’m in the middle of that spectrum. I’m not saying that I think there’s a 50% chance. Rather, I think those things seem very unlikely. I don’t know; I’m not certain. But neither am I on the fence.
In the geekily particular labels and categories of unbelief, you could call me a negative atheist, or an agnostic atheist, or a teapot atheist or agnostic. That last one stems from Bertrand Russell, and here is one way he made the point:
I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.
The latter part of the quote runs into some issues, in my opinion, but the former part is spot on. As you said, “There’s a million God theories.” And unless one can be distinguished from all its competitors in some way, the theories’ profusion makes each particular theory vanishingly unlikely to be the one that matches reality.
I don’t see adequate evidence to assert that there is a God, or that there is an ultimate meaning to life. I’m admittedly not certain that all claims along those lines, or that any particular claim along those lines, is wrong. But given how the claims conflict, and how their numbers reach the thousands, or millions, or even infinity, depending how you slice it—each particular claim is between extremely and infinitely unlikely to be true. So I disbelieve each one. That leaves me where I’m at.
On the one hand, yeah, I’m agnostic, not positively and certainly asserting that there is no God and no ultimate meaning. On the other hand, there sure doesn’t seem to be. No claims to the contrary—for particular Gods and meanings—appear at all likely to be true. So I face that absence of God and divine meaning, and—provisionally and without certainty—take that absence to be true.
Next, you wrote, Jabberwockily: “The fact that you continue to have these intensely meaningful conversations is evidence that you’ve not yet fully embraced your doctrine. That is, unless after reading each one you eat a pile of hair then run blackly fifteen bark toothpaste purple monkey dishwasher.” Nah bro. As my phrasing almost always signals, I’m only denying the existence of ultimate or divine or transcendent or supernatural meaning. I’ve never doubted or denied that humans, singly and in all sorts of groupings, are constantly valuing and judging and ascribing meanings. That includes you and I valuing our conversations. As for doing something putatively senseless like eating a pile of hair, sure, I’m free to do that. I’m also free not to. And I don’t have any desire to eat a pile of hair, at least not currently.
You ask, “is justice, fairness, goodness, or sense real enough to suffer for, to perhaps even die for?” I’d be willing to do at least some suffering if it seemed likely to have much effect, and I may be willing to die for such things after a bit more life has passed. (Tying back to the old alternatives-to-suicide theme.) But as for the avenues I currently see for working toward things like justice, fairness, goodness, or sense—teaching more, or public interest law, or thrift and giving—no, I’m not willing to suffer for them presently.
You wrote that “Our fellowship with all existence needn’t be only depressing, it can just as easily be seen as marvelous! And the insects… you of course realize that entire fields of science are devoted to unraveling the impressive ‘sense’ which they inhabit. And let’s not forget the poetry of forms and colors they bring forth! Mortal, frail, meat, YES! But we hardly reduce to our baseness. Atoms and impacts, incredible! From them, and the infinite other unfathomable dynamics, being comes to see itself, to know itself, to ask of itself, to sing, to love, to paint, to die… to know all this, and so to ask: why?”
I agree that this stuff needn’t be depressing, or at least not only depressing. Here’s the angle I’m working on. Yes, we’re just another animal, and the universe wasn’t made for us, and we’re an unlikely accident. But the flip side of that coin is that we’re lucky to be here! If we really are a fluke, then it’s a disappointment that we only exist as a fluke, but it’s a windfall that we exist at all! You know? So, sure, I won’t live for eternity, and nobody Big knows me or loves me or died for me or anything, and I have no big purpose or mission or meaning. But hey, I’m conscious, and that’s pretty flippin’ crazy! Who woulda thought that the Big Bang’s subatomic detritus, or the Archean Eon’s prokaryotic slime, would ever churn out something conscious? Yeah, some of what this consciousness discovers (given its capacity for reason, and its emotions and intuitions, and its acculturation and whatnot) is a bummer. But man, it’s ridiculous that we’re conscious to discover it! It’s sad that we minds are only matter, and won’t get to be minds for long. But hey, most matter doesn’t get to be minds at all! Etc.
At least that’s what I’m working at. We’ll see.
From Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy:
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It’s a mystery. A man’s at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with. He can know his heart, but he dont want to. Rightly so. Best not to look in there. It aint the heart of a creature that is bound in the way that God has set for it. You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it. You believe that?
I dont know.
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All night sheetlightning quaked sourceless to the west beyond the midnight thunderheads, making a bluish day of the distant desert, the mountains on the sudden skyline stark and black and livid like a land of some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear.
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Within the doorless cuartel the man who’d been shot sang church hymns and cursed God alternately. The squatters stood about the dead boy with their wretched firearms at rest like some tatterdemalion guard of honor. Glanton had given them a half pound of riflepowder and some primers and a small pig of lead and as the company rode out some looked back at them, three men standing there without expression. No one raised a hand in farewell. The dying man by the ashes of the fire was singing and as they rode out they could hear the hymns of their childhood and they could hear them as they ascended the arroyo and rode up through the low junipers still wet from the rain. The dying man sang with great clarity and intention and the riders setting forth upcountry may have ridden more slowly the longer to hear him for they were of just these qualities themselves.
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That night Glanton stared long into the embers of the fire. All about him his men were sleeping but much was changed. So many gone, defected or dead. The Delawares all slain. He watched the fire and if he saw portents there it was much the same to him. He would live to look upon the western sea and he was equal to whatever might follow for he was complete at every hour. Whether his history should run concomitant with men and nations, whether it should cease. He’d long forsworn all weighing of consequences and allowing as he did that men’s destinies are given yet he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and be his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so and he’d drive the remorseless sun on to its final endarkenment as if he’d ordered it all ages since, before there were paths anywhere, before there were men or suns to go upon them.
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The judge cracked with the back of an axe the shinbone on an antelope and the hot marrow dripped smoking on the stones. They watched him. The subject was war.
The good book says that he that lives by the sword shall perish by the sword, said the black.
The judge smiled, his face shining with grease. What right man would have it any other way? he said.
The good book does indeed count war an evil, said Irving. Yet there’s many a bloody tale of war inside it.
It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be.
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A moral view can never be proven right or wrong by any ultimate test. A man falling dead in a duel is not thought thereby to be proven in error as to his views. His very involvement in such a trial gives evidence of a new and broader view. The willingness of the principals to forgo further argument as the triviality which it in fact is and to petition directly the chambers of the historical absolute clearly indicates of how little moment are the opinions and of what great moment the divergences thereof. For the argument is indeed trivial, but not so the separate wills thereby made manifest. Man’s vanity may well approach the infinite in capacity but his knowledge remains imperfect and howevermuch he comes to value his judgements ultimately he must submit them before a higher court. Here there can be no special pleading. Here are considerations of equity and rectitude and moral right rendered void and without warrant and here are the views of the litigants despised. Decisions of life and death, of what shall be and what shall not, beggar all questions of right. In elections of these magnitudes are all lesser ones subsumed, moral, spiritual, natural.
… So here’s a question I’d like very much to ask you: What is it that compels you to tie up the mystery of being in the direction of meaninglessness? I’ve noticed you bring up the theme of honesty repeatedly. Now, I respect one who, when faced with a coercive argument/experience, choses honesty over desire, but I can’t personally imagine what kind of argument/experience could ever have the strength to put us in the place with regard to ultimacy.
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You asked what compels me to tie up the mystery of being in the direction of meaninglessness. As I’ve shared before, I don’t feel compelled to tie it up, or at all capable of tying it up, with certainty. I’m not certain that Christianity isn’t true, and I’m less certain that there’s no God at all, and no ultimate meaning at all. Strictly speaking I’m agnostic, and just leaning in those directions.
But your mention of compulsion is very apt. We live, and act, and choose, and this brings with it a certain compulsion. Because we live and act and choose in particular ways—agnostics of all stripes not excepted. While one can live without gnosis, one cannot live without living.
Those of us who happen to be so inclined can examine what sorts of lives are congruent with what sorts of beliefs (whatever the strength or certainty of the beliefs might be). We can see if people are obeying or enacting the scriptures that they profess to believe in, if people are flatly contradicting the scriptures they believe in, if people are acting in ways that they profess to have no good reason to act in, etc. Of course, I don’t think that this sort of examination is commanded or obligatory, nor do I think that we tend to do it often or well. But hey, it’s possible.
To loop back a bit and give a more direct answer, I don’t try to tie up the mystery of being with certainty. But as long as I am being, existing, living—I’m living some particular way. I used to strive to live a life that was congruent with the New Testament (/the Bible/the teachings of Jesus—if you want to begin getting nitty gritty). I didn’t consider myself to be certain that the Bible was from God, or even that there was a God. But I thought that this was the case, and I tried to live as if it was.
Now I don’t think it’s the case, and I’m no longer trying to live as if it is. I think (without certainty) that there’s probably no God, and therefore no ultimate meaning to life. Subsequently, I’m living as if this is the case. This is quite different than living as if Christianity is true in that nothing is mandatory or required; there are no commands or prohibitions. Someone could think there’s probably no God and no ultimate meaning, and then set out to live just about any sort of life, and either make a case that it’s congruent with her views, or just opt not to give any thought to such a case.
But I get tripped up with honesty, our next issue. I’m not sure if I’m justified in sticking with honesty. I’m not sure whether it’s a rational and coherent choice on my part, or more of a fear of losing control, or even simply a fear of change. To explain the control notion a bit, my efforts at honesty are efforts to believe true things. I’m choosing to hold tightly to whatever intellectual grip I have on reality. This clarity or knowledge seems to give greater control than I would otherwise have. Perhaps this bit of control is worth the trouble, and perhaps it’s not. I don’t know.
I’m discussing this honesty issue with another friend, and here’s what I recently wrote to him:
“I want to face reality with brutal honesty. Benefits of this include maximizing my knowledge and freedom and control, and being secure against things like shock and disappointment. Inasmuch as I’ve fully faced reality, I will be maximally able to steer my course through it, and to never be caught off guard by what I encounter.
If reality really is unjust and meaningless and all the rest, that can probably be expected to confront us in life no matter what we think or do. In facing the injustice and meaninglessness early, and abstractly, and categorically, I am obviously sacrificing some pleasure and scrounging up some pain in the present. And maybe this is what I’m doing on balance even in the long run. But it is at least mitigated in the long run, as those confrontations eventually come—in a thought, or a question, or a news report, or a betrayal, or a terminal diagnosis, or whatever—and I’m prepared. There is no shock, and there is no regret. I’ve been seeing reality this way, and living accordingly, all along. You know? It’s like a different take on the Christian lyric, ‘world is crumbling, but I know why.’
As I started writing to you yesterday, these days, I can hear pretty much any news report—Syria, Aurora shooting, Romney’s regressive tax plans—and shrug. And then I hear the reports of reactions of horror and shock and outrage, and to be honest, I often laugh. What kind of world do you think we live in? Don’t you see the truth? What makes you expect or demand anything different from this? What makes you expect justice or fairness or goodness or sense? We’re animals. Our concrete jungles have never ceased to be jungles.”
Although I admit my honesty may not be worth it, it would really be quite a project to try to abandon it. Because it’s not like I go around forcing myself to chant nihilistic mantras, or to otherwise seek and pursue such thoughts. Rather, the ultimate meaninglessness of life is constantly smacking me in the face. Because of how I trained myself to see and think and feel under Christianity (along with whatever contributions came from temperament, upbringing, philosophy studies, whatever), meaninglessness jumps out at me. When people talk loosely about morality or about meaningfulness, I see the gaping holes that there’s probably no God to fill. When people show tribalism, irrationality, outright stupidity, etc., I see how accidental and purposeless our evolutionary creation was. This is also announced by the whole animal kingdom, from happy and affectionate dogs, to soulless arthropod drones, to mangled and inanimate roadkill. We’re depressingly like each. I’ve walked looking down at grass and weeds and bugs, and thought how incessant and teeming and senseless those sorts of life are, and how we’re really no different. I’ve often looked at roadkill, and thought how we are likewise mortal, and frail, and meat. I’ve sat looking at a car’s hood and headlights, and though how both they and I are simply atoms. The moon outside my window right now announces how the ancient impact that created it could have destroyed the fledgling Earth, and a future comet impact could easily extinguish us, and the Sun will eventually expand and sear away any life that might last that long. The universe wasn’t built for us; we’re just infesting it like the grass and weeds and bugs.
As for your closing words about ultimacy, can you tease that thought out a bit? What facet or quality of ultimacy are you suggesting should give me pause, and in what way? E.g., are you pointing toward a problem about having adequate knowledge to make any ultimate judgments, or the practical difficulty and unpleasantness of accepting ultimate meaninglessness, or something different?
A friend who’s been slowly growing firmer in his agnosticism recently told me about how he doesn’t want to feel guilty for not living up to Christianity’s standards, and how he just wants to feel like he’s “living a good fucking life.”
In other words, he doesn’t want to feel like there’s a standard—he just wants to feel like he’s living up to it.
It calls to mind G. K. Chesterton’s lucid lines from Heretics:
Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good. … The modern man says, “Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.” This is, logically rendered, “Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.” He says, “Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.” This, logically stated, means, “Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.” He says, “Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.” This, clearly expressed, means, “We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.”
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Alright, alright, my friend didn’t actually express what I wrote above. He never said that he doesn’t want to feel like there’s a standard. Therefore, he didn’t contradict himself. We could state his position like this: he wants to feel like there’s a moral standard that he’s living up to.
And how nice that would be! How perfectly the universe would then suit him!
This is not the desire to discover what moral standard exists, and then change his life to meet that standard, and then feel good about meeting the moral standard; nor is it the discovery that there is no moral standard, and then the abandonment of feeling good about meeting the moral standard; no, this is an unabashed desire for the good feelings of morality, without any of the demands or risks or losses that might possibly be involved!
My friend expressed two simple and natural desires: I don’t want to feel guilty; I want to feel that I’m living a good life. We could rephrase them as the two simple and natural desires: I don’t want to feel bad; I want to feel good.
To seek pleasure and avoid pain is a rather simple matter when it’s restricted to eating, mating, escaping predators, and the like. Once we bring in our damned language and reason and abstraction, though, things fall apart. If we’re thinking and feeling about a moral standard, or a God, or something like that, then our simple hedonistic demands soon become utterly ridiculous.
From War and Peace:
During all this time one thought filled his mind. This thought was: Who had in the last analysis condemned him to be executed? It was not the same men who had examined him at the court-martial; there was not one man among them who would have been willing, or, in all probability, could have done so. It was not Davoust, who had looked at him with such a human look. One instant more and Davoust would have understood that they were making a mistake, but that moment was disturbed by the aide who had come in. And this aide evidently would not willingly have done anything wrong, but he could not help it. Who, then, was it that was the final cause of his being punished, killed, deprived of life—he, Pierre, with all his recollections, yearnings, hopes, ideas? Who was doing this?
And Pierre felt that it was no one.
It was the order of things, the chain of circumstances.
This order of things was somehow killing him—Pierre—depriving him of life, destroying him.