"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Abolition of Man

This post is to enshrine the current iteration of a well traveled topic on this blog. Matt and I have been continually kicking around this idea of what role "Meaning" plays in our lives and where each of us believes it comes from. The most recent thrashing of this subject is occurring here. It gets down to some very bedrock issues and is well worth a read. Having said that, shall we begin anew?

As you said earlier, reason plays a relatively minor role in this process of world view formation. Sure, you can consciously will it to the forefront, at least to the degree that you are aware of it, but for the most part our struggle to sort out these issues takes place in a much different realm.

Thus far you have battered me with question after question regarding the stance I take on these issues. I, in turn, have taken my swipes at the atheistic world view. Where has that brought us?

I don't know about you, but after all this, I am feeling more confident than ever with my position. Not because I have succeeded in "proving" anything, but because the more I explore the alternative to theism, the more I see how atheism is bound to bring about the abolition of man. If atheism is our starting point, man will be demeaned and devalued right out of existence; not by the atheist, (most of them do not realize the poison they hold) but by the empty philosophy that reduces man to random chemistry and leaves us with no hope other than oblivion.

So when it comes down to it, I am confident in my theism because of how I feel. My feelings, (and everyone else's) point to something that atheism has no room for. You yourself want to feel deeply about life. However, your world view cannot contain it. Atheism is the most vulgar of all the options on the table. Of all the wold views man has constructed nothing annihilates our worth, meaning, hope, beauty, and love faster than atheism. You can try and twist around this any number of ways, but the stated tenants of the naturalistic position create an immediate contradiction:

You may feel each of the emotions stated above, but naturalism will at the same moment, half under it's breath, utter: but it's only chance and chemicals and is therefore meaningless.

You don't seem to accept this and I don't blame you. I know you want meaning Matt, but I'm afraid for you to grasp it you are going to need to let to let go of the idea that there is no God and we are just lonely accidents floating on to oblivion.

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Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

This brings up that all important question; should Neo have taken the blue or the red pill.

You infer that the main drive towards theism for you is that it give you a sense of meaning. That atheism does not. But Matt and I argue that meaning is subjective, so although you might be right in saying atheism fails to provide you with meaning, you cannot use the term objectively and say every atheist's life has no meaning. If that were the case, atheists would be filling up psych wards all across the globe. They aren't. They're apparently fairly well-balanced individuals.

For me, the Matrix allegory isn't entirely facetious. Atheism and theism could be argued to represent the blue and red pill respectively, but equally argued to represent the red and blue pill respectively. In your post, the arguments you give for your own personal choice are indicative of a wish to take the blue pill; to go with what gives you comfort. For many atheists, most of whom were brought up in a religious setting, their choice certainly represents taking the red pill; a wish to step away from the warm blanket of faith and see the beauty of an uncertain world.

The snag is that it isn't entirely clear which choice is correct. It is possible that life without any faith whatsoever is as harmful to a person as smoking 20 a day. Do we therefore embrace faith, even though it might be an untruth, simply to stay alive? I don't know. Just as I don't know whether that traitor dude was wrong to want to go back to the make believe world of The Matrix (even if he was wrong in his approach to the matter.)

3:30 PM

Blogger Matt M said...

Red pill every time. But then I've always had a thing for dystopian SF, and those hovercraft things were seriously cooool.

4:11 PM

Blogger Matt M said...

So when it comes down to it, I am confident in my theism because of how I feel.

So then it's just free-for-all? Go for whatever feels right?

Well then, it's a sort of humanistic naturalism every time for me - it's the only world view that affirms the inherent worth of the individual will establishing a common sense take on existence. I've tried christianity (purposely small-c: as it was the generalised version that exists in the UK) and found it seriously lacking.

Should I ever feel the need for an alternative, I'm thinking that Buddhism has a lot of positive features. Might junk the whole rebirth thing though.

4:16 PM

Blogger Chad Eberhart said...

Incitatus, is there anything to be said for experience? I would argue that I have not met anyone, athiest or otherwise, who lives out a purely subjective worldview - at least where they hold up subjectivity as the whole truth of meaning. Certainly, there are theists who maintain a worldview where there is objective truth yet, in action find themselves contradicting how one should behave if they truly believed in absolutes or objective truth. However, if they truly ascend to the ideal of objective truth, that person will continue to be shaped by that belief.

For the athiest, however, most have made a conscious decision for a purely subjective point of view, because, well, what else is there if there is no God. Yet, most athiests still feel slighted, for example, if someone doesn't love them back or treat them fairly, just like anyone else. Those who don't, I think it is fair to say, are usually considered either sociopaths or saints - the difference is one worked it out of an objective ideal of love and the other has no idea what love is from the beginning and generally is incapable of reciprocating it.

What I think is most disturbing, though, and I think the original post addresses this, is when a purely subjective, athiestic worldview gets adopted on the macro level, either consciously or implied, you have a recipe for total cultural collapse because there is no objective ideal to ascend to except one's own private experience. This, if truly believed (which I argue that there are no true subjectivist, except for the mentally ill) individually is text book narcisism/sociopathy.

When taken to its logical/psychological conclusion you have to ask yourself, is this true? Certainly you can argue it, but really?

4:35 PM

Blogger Chad Eberhart said...

woops...atheist, I mean...sorry for the other words I misspelled (is that right? two sss).

4:41 PM

Blogger Matt M said...


Welcome to the blog. :-)

Just one question on the idea of 'objective truth' - if something exists beyond us, how do we have access to it?

6:37 PM

Blogger Chad Eberhart said...


10:36 PM

Blogger Tom Freeman said...


There are now 3 really thought-provoking threads that I’ve not had time to comment on, and whenever I do manage to scrape a couple of paragraphs together I find that you’ve already moved on…

I hope I’ll be able to pull together a post that’s more coherent than a bunch of assorted remarks in the not-too-distant future, but in the meantime I’ll keep reading with interest.

6:18 AM

Blogger Matt M said...



But what form would this revelation take that doesn't involve subjective experience of it?

7:58 AM

Blogger Chad Eberhart said...

Right. There is always a personal or subjective experience of an objective occurence (fact) from an external source (God) in revelation. I'm not arguing for a strictly static objectivity without subjective interpretation. This is where reason comes in to balance various subjective interpretations against dubious claims...and reason in my opinion doesn't always have to be hyperskepticism - which is as much of a blury lens that can cloud our vision as anything else.

8:39 AM

Blogger Daniel Nairn said...

Hello all, I've been following this blog for a while and thought I would poke a thought into this fascinating conversation.

I deeply respect Incitatus impulse to take the road of truth regardless of how difficult. Even if self-dulusion is pragmatic, there is some intuition within all of us that feels it is deeply wrong. However, as a Christian, of course, I disagree that belief in God is one of these wedges between truth and happiness. If God created us for knowledge, we are most satsified when we know him.

Then, Matt asks the million dollar question: so you say there is this objective layer of meaning that must be discovered rather than created individually? How do you know this?

Where is the bridge between reality of God and our perception of this reality?

First off, I think your question is not one of simply skepticism concerning God, but really skepticism about anything. Sciences can be justified by their usefulness (models explaining data), but how do we know that our empirical data corresponds to reality. I have never heard a convincing secular answer to this.

But consider Chad's answer "revelation". It lies at the heart of Christianity - not something we've tied on at the end to debug the worldview of any errors.

I believe that, in Jesus Christ, the "Word" became "Flesh." In other words the inaccessible, transcendant God did not wait for us to discover him by use of our own faculties, but rather "discovered us" and connected us. The bridge is not built from earth to heaven, but from heaven to earth.

9:59 AM

Blogger Matt M said...


I have never heard a convincing secular answer to this.

I don't think there is one. The best we have - to my (limited) knowledge - is Hume's suggestion that because our perceptions appear to relate to an external world we should assume that they do. That way we maintain a healthy scepticism, but also have something to build on.

For me, all empirical knowledge - indeed, all knowledge - is contingent. Nothing is absolute or unquestionable.

So when someone claims to have knowledge of the divine I treat it with the same scepticism I treat all claims which run contrary to how the world appears to me - I ask for evidence and look for what alternative explanation are possible. I then try and judge which is the more likely.

When it comes to revelation, as I understand it, I see a number of alternative explanations.

This isn't so say that revelation is necessarily a mistaken interpretation of a natural event or a delusion, etc. just that it seems more likely to me.

10:53 AM

Blogger Alex said...

I've never before seen such an explosion of commenting goodness! I'd like to start by welcoming Chad and Daniel. It's good to see some fresh faces, especially Daniel who's blog I have been following for quite some time now. It's about time I received a little back-up around here! = ) Now on to the show...

Rev. Dr. Incitatus,
What I like about you is you really seem to "get" what I'm saying about the implications of atheism. You seem to realize that if there be no God there is no absolute foundation to any of our quests for meaning, love, beauty, etc... All is subjective. Nothing is really any better or worse than anything else... just different. You need to be comfortable living in that world to be an honest atheist. However, I see a big problem with trying to make that world the reality in which you live...

The problem is, that world doesn't exist!

Morality is NOT subjective, though peoples interpretations of it often are. Some things truly ARE beautiful and others not so much. We treat love as if it really IS something special not just our meat sack reacting to a stimulus. Atheism does not honor the reality that each of us feels inside of us. That is what I mean by following my feelings on this topic. The way I (and the vast majority of humanity except for the mentally disabled) feel about life defies the doctrine of materialism. Why is that do you suppose? Do you truly believe, as you say you do, that matter just happened to mindlessly evolve into a marvelously complicated form that achieves "consciousness" only to fundamentally deceive it's self? The more times I go over it, the more I can hardly keep from laughing out loud at the sheer leap of reason required to accept such a stance! It's truly laughable! The reality that we feel, as we live our lives, points to something OTHER than some mysterious, mindless, eternal, energy source. It points to a reality that seems very poorly represented in this place. We long for things we cannot find here. Could it be that there really is more to it? Could it be that the general packaging of "religion", that succeeds in turning so many generally even minded folk away, was never intended by the one who created us? Could it be that this is not our home?

You infer that the main drive towards theism for you is that it give you a sense of meaning.

Not exactly. My main drive towards theism is that it HONORS my sense of meaning. Atheism does violence to ANY sense of meaning, including the idea of a subjective self imposed sense of meaning that the atheist must cling to.

although you might be right in saying atheism fails to provide you with meaning, you cannot use the term objectively and say every atheist's life has no meaning.

No sir I do not intend to. What I do intend to say is that atheism has nothing to say on the topic of meaning for ANYONE. Atheism, naturalism, nihilism. They all go hand in hand. The fact that hardly any atheist in existence will adopt a nihilistic outlook is evidence that perhaps we are wired to live a life of "meaning". If we are wired that way, why? If there is no foundation to our sense of meaning then why is it meaningful? My argument is that atheists live meaningful lives as much as the next person, but they must do so in violation of their world view. The theist does not need to do that. They are able to live a consistent life. The theist (or in my case Christian) knows where their meaning comes from and why we have this sense of meaning in the first place.

the arguments you give for your own personal choice are indicative of a wish to take the blue pill; to go with what gives you comfort.

Comfort, yes. But not at the expense of truth. I cannot have comfort without truth. I, like anyone, want my life to be inconformity with the truth. The fact of the matter is that atheism does not honor the truth of my life experience. What I am attempting to demonstrate to all involved here is that atheism does not honor the truth of ANYONES life experience.

a wish to step away from the warm blanket of faith and see the beauty of an uncertain world.

I don't know about you, but I have never viewed faith as a warm blanket. For me faith has been a fight. More often than not I am tempted to walk out of my church. I will never darken the doorway of most religious institutions in my area. Faith has been a very difficult thing for me to hang on to. Religious people make me very uneasy. The problem I face is that the alternative would have me believe I don't exist at all. When you say "step out and see the beauty of an uncertain world" I certainly don't need to step out of faith to see that. However, if I did it could no longer be classified as "beautiful", as beauty would cease to exist.

Do we therefore embrace faith, even though it might be an untruth, simply to stay alive?

Nope. All things should be subjected to the fire of criticism and be forced to prove their merits. Faith untested is not faith, it's stupidity.

Okay that's all I can manage for now. I'll try and address some other comments as I get time. Good to have you all here. I really appreciate the honesty and thoughtfulness everyone has put into their comments. Keep it up!

12:56 PM

Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

You seem to realize that if there be no God there is no absolute foundation to any of our quests for meaning, love, beauty, etc... All is subjective. Nothing is really any better or worse than anything else...

Hmm.. not quite. To clarify my position I believe that there are a core set of values that, as a result of being evolutionarily advantageous, have become important elements for the survival and perpetuation of the social consciousness. These values represent the core of our morality. However, they do not necessarily encompass it all, and indeed although they sit at the centre of our morality, as you progress outwards, the boundaries of our morality become more amorphous, shifting and changing depending on numerous factors (e.g. changing environments, competition for resources, difference in physical and emotional traits that are attractive etc). One only need look back over the last 1000 yrs to see a profound shift in moral boundaries. It wasn't until three hundred years ago that something as apparently obvious as inalienable rights finally got a firm foothold in western culture (arguably a slender foothold, but a foothold nonetheless). Even so, in times of war we can still see that morality can become a very relative concept. I believe the British soldier in 'The Meaning of Life' said something like, "If I murdered someone back home they'd hang me for it; here they give me a bloody medal!"

From a purely objective standpoint morality - even its central components - are meaningless. But we aren't objective, and because these personality traits have such a profound influence on the survival of our society, they matter deeply to us. I just believe they matter to us because of how they make us behave rather than because they have some spiritual truth to them. Similarly, by making sex pleasurable, evolution finds a way to encourage us to procreate. we just like having sex. We can't look at morality from the outside, because we are part of it. So to us, the fundamental elements of morality are as real as the cold hard surface of a stone under the palm of our hand (which is also subjective, but as Hume points out you just have to trust your senses sometimes).

For me, morality exists because whether I like it or not, it's deeply imbedded in my DNA. As you say, we 'feel' it strongly. But my point is, that's because its evolutionarily advantageous for us to do so. Unfortunately, it was never evolutionarily advantageous for us to know that that's why we are who we are. And furthermore, simply 'knowing/believing' this to be the truth cannot unravel over 100 million years of evolution. I can convince myself on a rational level that 'green' is nothing more than my concious interpretation of a pulse of energy vibrating at a particular frequency, but that won't stop me seeing green as green.

Basically, to me morality is simply one of evolutions dirty tricks. But like sex, I'm quite happy to go along with it.

2:54 PM

Blogger Chad Eberhart said...


You list several examples where morality shifts and changes depending on circumstances - which I assume you take to be evidence that morality is both subjective, arbitrary, and ultimately dependent on what is expedient for one person or group's survival. You use the example of the soldier who comments on the irony of his job: that he'd get hanged in civilian life for what he does as a soldier - murder. The point being that different situations change how we view and exercise morality. In war murder is good because it benifits the nation, any other time it's the worst crime you can commit. I think, though, that the soldier's commentary proves just the opposite, that no matter what, we can't escape the fundamental feeling that something is horribly wrong with killing another human being no matter what context - even when it's advantages, or for the good of the group. It's this feeling that flies in the face of a strictly evolutionary understanding of morality.

4:06 PM

Blogger Alex said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:48 PM

Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

'we can't escape the fundamental feeling that something is horribly wrong with killing another human being no matter what context - even when it's advantages, or for the good of the group. It's this feeling that flies in the face of a strictly evolutionary understanding of morality.'

Not necessarily. Empathy is a vital characteristic in the wellbeing of a social group. It's likely a natural progression from the idea of 'revenge', which is itself likely derived from the defensive strategy by which many organisms preempt aggressive action by hinting at its negative consequences for the aggressor (e.g. brightly coloured poisonous beasties). Those negative consequences usually being along the lines of, 'You hurt me, and I'll hurt you right back.'

We have learned empathy because it's important for us to predict whether our actions are harmful to others, and hence reduce the likelihood that our actions may provoke a retaliatory reaction towards us individually or as a group. It's interesting to watch children develop this empathy over time. We often appeal to such children, 'You shouldn't hit people, because you wouldn't like it if they hit you.' In fact, the evolution of vengeance and empathy probably parallels its development in young children, where a desire for revenge precedes empathy, which is usually stimulated by the experience of being the subject of revenge. As we say, children can be cruel; that's because empathy is a higher faculty which requires a capacity for abstract thought far beyond a simple retaliation defence mechanism.

Unfortunately, for empathy to remain relevant, so must our fear of retaliation. Our powerful urge to avenge wrongs done against us ensures that empathy will always be naturally selected for.

When you get down to it, human conflict and the justification of murder usually boils down to two things: 1) a concerted attempt to dehumanise the opponent in a manner which renders empathy unecessary, for material gain (see Holocaust, conventional war over property, slavery); and/or, 2) A continual cycle of retaliation and counter retaliation in which neither side admits to being the original transgressor.

1:01 PM

Blogger Chad Eberhart said...

Ultimately, I think where we run into disagreement on this issue – and I think this is probably stating the obvious – is where we begin our approach. Philosophically, I assume you are coming from the prevailing modern approach to reality that says existence precedes essence, a radical shift in thinking that occurred in the Western mind that took place in no small part due to cosmological discoveries during the enlightenment. And, of course, Darwin certainly plays no small part either, not to mention Freud. Approaching it from this foundation it is certainly natural for you to understand the idea of empathy proceeding from revenge and revenge from defense - in a nutshell, a bottom up approach.

Those of us who are theists generally proceed in the opposite direction: essence precedes existence, a top down approach. I would argue that we begin with love, and from love comes empathy, and from empathy can come the wrong response of revenge, and then defense (using your words anyway); the essence of love, and its byproduct empathy, becoming distorted by revenge and defense. We are perpetually trying to ascend to the ideal. To put it another way, we are perpetually trying to recover what we are made for, which is love. It’s the continuous work of trying to clearly see (get rid of the distortion) created by our selfishness and pride, that too often clouds our consciousness/knowledge we gained (or lost depending how you look at it) after the Christian concept of the fall.

Although I’m not necessarily opposed to interpreting human development in evolutionary terms, I don’t go the next step and say that we can reduce our spiritual/moral/psychological development to a strictly evolutionary understanding without divine intervention, without poetry and beauty attached that development, which ultimately comes from a God Who is love.

For me personally, I think it’s both/and. Like I don’t necessarily disagree with you except for where you (at least I think you do) take the divine out of the equation. To do this, and this goes back to all the blue pill/red pill talk, is to live out a life of meaninglessness. I realize you would argue that you create meaning for yourself, I just disagree that this is a psychologically/emotionally/spiritually plausible position. There is something absolutely inherent to maintaining a solipsistic understanding of meaning where people die, where a baby is born, where we fall in love with a woman, where we appreciate fine Scotch, where we watch the sunset over the bay, where we plant a tomato plant and watch it grow to maturity etc. – that, for me, is ultimately unsatisfactory.

10:38 AM

Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

I think you're absolutely right, Chad. We're staring at the sky with different filters in our spectacles and arguing about what colour it is. Alex is correct to point out that there probably won't be any minds changed through this sort of discussion, but I don't think that renders the discussion pointless in any way. It's an opportunity to understand a different world view, and perhaps learn a little more about our own in the process.

12:45 PM

Blogger Chad Eberhart said...

Yep. I'm glad to have had this discussion. It's good to keep ourselves honest by engaging with another viewpoint. Thanks, rev. for your thoughtful posts.

10:56 PM

Blogger Tom Freeman said...

Hi Alex and gang. These are some thoughts on the issues here as well as onthis earlier thread. Thought it’d make sense to bring it together.

“Of all the world views man has constructed nothing annihilates our worth, meaning, hope, beauty, and love faster than atheism.”

I disagree, actually. Try this world view:

“I am no longer able to assert that people have worth and value in their own right. Humanity has worth and value only if God has assigned worth and value to us.”

For all your railing against the nihilistic implications of atheism, all you seem to have to offer is nihilism with God bolted on (and a sigh of relief). In ourselves, we are worthless and everything we do is pointless. Look, you could equally say that trees and rocks have worth and value only if God has assigned worth and value to them, right? So does that mean we’re the moral equivalent of trees and rocks? I think you have to say yes: we might be favourite toys but we’re still just toys.

Because you’ve got your eyes to the heavens you miss what life is like on this little planet, and what it’s really worth. The reason humanists are humanists comes from the recognition that we have psychological features that render us intrinsically meaningful in a way that trees and rocks aren’t.

I’m coming to think that the interesting difference between us isn’t so much Christianity vs atheism as it is Platonism vs emergentism. You think that for something to count as being real it has to partake in a ‘higher’ reality, and so from mindless, purposeless matter nothing conscious or meaningful can come.

I think that all sorts of remarkable complexity can arise naturally, including intelligent, self-aware life. A living tree is made of nothing more than lifeless atoms and yet is alive. A human brain can be made of mindless cells and yet still be conscious. The whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Emergence is the (non-magical) process by which new properties arise in complex systems as a result of the interactions between constituents at a more basic level.

For instance, a single isolated H2O molecule is in itself neither solid nor liquid not gas; it’s only when a number of molecules interact in certain ways and form certain sorts of bonds that it even makes sense to talk about ice, water and steam. These are emergent properties that don’t exist at the lower level, but whose appearance at the higher level is still dependent on what’s going on at the lower level. Nothing ‘special’ is added in.

The notion of a molecule doesn’t figure in subatomic physics. The concept of multiple organ failure has no place in cell biology. It makes no sense to ask how intelligent a single neuron is. An individual marooned on a desert island isn’t even a tiny fraction of a society. Trying to understand the ecosystem of a rainforest in terms of the physiology of the things that live there would be as misguided as thinking that there’s some transcendent force running the ecosystem.

Sentient life can be made of mindless lifeless matter – and yet still be no less alive and sentient for it.

And then there’s the idea that sentient life couldn’t develop from non-sentient origins.

You keep saying evolution is “random”; it’s not. If it were random, species wouldn’t become fitter over generations. Sure, mutations are random, but selection most certainly isn’t. Blind, indeed, but not random. A chance mutation that happens to suit an organism better to its environment means it’s likelier to reproduce more and so that mutation will spread among the population. Selection is based pitilessly on fitness.

And what sort of environment did early humans have to survive in? They needed to be able to tell predator from prey, ally from rival. They needed to be able to remember where water and shelter were. They needed to be able to respond appropriately to any number of different situations (in fact, a lot of this is way pre-human). It’s useful to be able to react to what other creatures do, and it’s really useful to be able to anticipate what they’re going to do before they do it.

As Daniel Dennett puts it: “the organisms that are going to make it are the ones who can discriminate those situations and do the right thing at the right time. They have begun to detect reason in the world for doing something, and then doing that thing for that reason. That’s the birth of reason, that’s the birth of agency, that’s the birth of avoidance.
“Now, after this gets going, you get arms race after arms race. You get predator-prey interactions where staying out of harm’s way become an ever more sophisticated activity. The use of the sense organs to look ahead, to look before you leap, to gather information about the surroundings in order to guide behaviour, becomes an ever more important part of the repertory of the living thing. Notice that not all living things go that route – plants basically don’t. It’s the locomotors that develop the sense organs, that begin to look ahead, and base their next move on what they anticipate nature’s going to do.
“Then, as nature begins to include more and more other agents, the anticipation of the move of the other is partly based on your anticipation of what the other anticipates you’re going to do, and that then sets off a snowballing of reasons and deviousness and ever more potent forms of anticipation and expectation-generation.”

[Sorry, no link – my own transcript of a BBC radio interview from 2003.]

A practical, seemingly simple issue such as whether that other guy has seen you yet is the sort of thing that our understanding of mind has grown out of. And as we developed the ability to focus on what’s going on in the other guy’s head, it’s hardly surprising that we also came to be able to turn that focus on ourselves, and think about our own thoughts: to become conscious of ourselves as thinking beings.

Human psychology is such that we have preferences and interests, on the basis of which we form intentions and develop plans. This is the condition of having purpose.

So not only can we perceive meaning, we can create it as well. Pretty much any animal can pursue its own purposes of a sort, but the fact that we are aware of our purposes as purposes means that we can weigh options and aims consciously in a way that lower animals can’t.

The fact that we can stop to think about our purposes and question whether there might be better ones leads us, eventually, into this discussion we’re having right now. The ability to imagine taking a different perspective on purposes does, in the end, dissolve the idea of an ultimate perspective from which purposes could be absolute.

Sure, if there’s a God, then he has preferences and plans and purposes, so a situation with him in it has meaning. But the same is just as true of us. And equally it’s true that with or without him, there’s the unanswerable question that comes from imagining that further step back and saying ‘But what’s the purpose of that purpose?’ Eventually, there’s nothing for the skyhooks to catch on to.

The question of ultimate higher meaning is one that you keep coming back to, and then when challenged about what would give God an ultimate higher meaning, you say: “He is the absolute, eternal, foundational Fact of all reality. He just is.”

Say this is true. If so, then the ‘step outside ourselves’ that we can take to question any of our ordinary day-to-day purposes won’t in fact be possible here, as there is no outside when you’re talking about an omnipresent eternal creator. Thing is, that’s not enough for your argument. Because when I take a step outside myself to wonder what all my efforts are all about, it’s only metaphorical: it’s a logical, imaginative exercise. So even if there’s no actual way to transcend God, the fact that the question is even askable kicks the conceptual door wide open.

The very concept of ‘higher meaning’ destroys the possibility of being able to provide it.

11:42 AM

Blogger Alex said...

Hey Tom,
Good to hear from you again. As usual you bring a very thoughtful (and lengthy ;-) ) perspective to the mix. Every time I finish reading one of your comments it makes me want to quit blogging all together. I simply cannot match the style in which you put fourth your arguments! Ah well, I'll do what can.

Matt is going to be out of contact for the entire week so I plan on devoting all my blog time to what you have to say. As we speak I am in the midst of "setting up the question" in a more formalized way. We have been at this long enough that I believe there are some core concepts we can solidify thus making this debate a little easier to work through... maybe.

I'll dig in first chance I get.

8:18 PM

Blogger Alex said...

Alright Tom,
I was planning on responding to you in an indirect sort of way through my next post but after I got a ways into it I feel it may be best for me to hash this out with you one on one as I continue working on my next one. It may still be quite a while.

First off let's start here, where you say:
I disagree, actually. Try this world view...

I see where you are coming from. Your objection is: I have a mind. My mind perceives things as meaningful to 'me'. Therefore, things are meaningful.

To that extent I agree with you. Where that philosophy becomes problematic is in your dealings with other people who do not share your picture of meaning or morality. Naturally you will try to appeal to some standard of what should or should not be right or wrong, but you will soon find yourself with nothing to stand on. Also, If you do not feel any sense of good-will towards someone, you have no obligation to will yourself to act in a positive way towards them.

Quite possibly, Tom, you are better than the philosophy you claim to hold, but what happens when you try and bring this message of 'truth' to the masses who are not nearly as thoughtful or educated as yourself? How will they apply this 'truth' when you tell them that they are amazing chemical robots, that their future is determined by the chemical dance that is occurring all around them, that their beginning was mindless and irrational and their end will be mindless and irrational, their cessation of existence will be final and really not much different than simply falling asleep. When you then tell them: "But brothers please do right by one another, it is essential for the survival of us all!" Will they not say "Well sure as long as it does not infringe on me."? When they see themselves as the final wellspring of meaning and worth in their world, what will you have to appeal to when their meaning becomes intolerable for society? What if they don't really care all that much for society? What if society has beaten them down? Would you have anything to offer them? When man sees himself as the final stop on the chain of morality all becomes excusable. Anything can be reasoned away. Even if you went to public school you should be able to see the evil that springs daily from a philosophy such as this applied all around us.

When you say:
For all your railing against the nihilistic implications of atheism, all you seem to have to offer is nihilism with God bolted on (and a sigh of relief). In ourselves, we are worthless and everything we do is pointless.

I guess that depends on what God says about us now wouldn't it?

It seems you fundamentally misunderstand my position. You and I both know we have minds that find things to be meaningful to us. This is undeniable. It is the foundation of all rational philosophy. (Though the existentialists have their own take on it) However in a Godless world-view how does one assert that what we think is meaningful is actually meaningful? We'll get to the question of Emergence in a moment, but for the time being try and hang with me. If your mind is irrational chemicals responding to stimuli put in motion by an irrational singularity acting within the bounds of an eternal set of 'natural' laws then your thoughts can only be as rational as the as the cause that determined their eventual existence. Unless you expect quantum indeterminacy to somehow save you, you are left with only as much meaning as the big-bang had to begin with. Can you find a way to imbue the Big Bang with meaning? I can.

For another interesting take on this see our good friend Scott here. As well as a quality follow up here. As usual I disagree with his conclusion but the man is right on the money as he evaluates the problem.

Now on to this issue of Emergence. Each of the examples you listed were examples of weak emergence. The complexity of the system above it's constitutional parts my indeed bring about unexpected consequences but even within your example of the rain-forest ecosystem you are able to deduce the conditions present from the complex interactions of the lower parts of the system.

Apart from weak emergence there is this aspect of strong emergence that a purely naturalistic outlook tends to have a bit more of a problem with:

Although strong emergence is logically possible, it is uncomfortably like magic. How does an irreducible but supervenient downward causal power arise, since by definition it cannot be due to the aggregation of the micro-level potentialities? Such causal powers would be quite unlike anything within our scientific ken. This not only indicates how they will discomfort reasonable forms of materialism. Their mysteriousness will only heighten the traditional worry that emergence entails illegitimately getting something from nothing - David Chalmers

The the implications of both strong and weak emergence are well illustrated in this point, again by David Chalmers:

In a way, the philosophical morals of strong emergence and weak emergence are diametrically opposed. Strong emergence, if it exists, can be used to reject the physicalist picture of the world as fundamentally incomplete. By contrast, weak emergence can be used to support the physicalist picture of the world, by showing how all sorts of phenomena that might seem novel and irreducible at first sight can nevertheless be grounded in underlying simple laws.

From the reading I have been doing on this topic here consciousness is one of the few things that we know of that actually seems to fall into this category of strong emergence. It is fundamentally outside of our current picture of naturalistic reality. At least that is the case being made. For instance, a colourblind scientist given complete physical knowledge about brains could nevertheless not deduce what it is like to have a conscious experience of red.

The concept of Strong Downward Causation. (about a quarter way down the page) is also introduced in the above Chalmers piece, which sounds remarkably like "super-natural" in smart person talk.

So at the end of the day this idea of Emergence does not appear to be the easy way out for the Atheist. The battle continues to rage on within that field of study and those of us outside of the fray will make of it what we want.

Thus when you say: Sentient life can be made of mindless lifeless matter – and yet still be no less alive and sentient for it. You are stating a faith position that is not universally agreed upon or supported on anything but faith. It's not a fact and should not be treated as such.

On this idea of randomness you mentioned, I will be quick to agree that evolution is not random. Evolution acts within the mysterious natural laws that are constant. If atheism is true, I would argue that nothing is random. All is determined by the precise conditions present at the moment of this universe's birth. Determinism rules the day. Each aspect of our universe acts upon the next in slavery to the natural laws. If one had unlimited intellect and knowledge of all aspects of the universe, one could forecast the future to an exactitude. Being enslaved to the natural laws means nothing in this universe can act in such a way as to be "free" or independent of the system that holds it. Each cause will precipitate a predictable effect. Since you are a part of this system, as is your mind, every aspect of you that you consider to be 'you' has been determined long before your consciousness ever emerged. Of course I reject this notion on the basis that we truly are more than the sum of our parts. There is an aspect of our constitution that is far beyond what science can reach. We have eternity written on our hearts.

So perhaps I have been loose with my language in the past. Hopefully that cleared the issue up a bit.

Now onto this business of imagining how our reason and consciousness may have grown out of the pre-man animal's drive for survival. To even begin this conversation you must be willing to pitch the entire bit on strong emergence that we spoke of earlier. I'd guess you are probably willing to do that. Obviously I am not.

Dennett does a fine job of illustrating how reasons (and therefore meaning) can grow out from an existing state of consciousness. There is also much speculation out there about how life may have arisen from a briny soup 3.8 billion years ago then progressed on towards the present feeding off the energy of the sun... changing... being chosen... becoming more complicated as it continued to respond to the environment that it existed in. The level of complexity involved in the process is enough to inspire awe in anyone perceiving cosmology that contains this story, regardless of one being an atheist or a theist.

To be honest Tom, I really don't know where I come down on all of that. There's this level of tuning that no one can seem to account for. There's the problematic issue of origins. There's the reality that physical laws exist at all. No one can explain why they are, they just are.

As I look down the path of simply ignoring those problems and taking the position that God has no part in the process, I see myself sitting here pondering all this. I see the realization that in the big picture my life is simply a fraction of a part of fraction of a moment of a meaningless explosion. I see that no one is really responsible for their actions. They are simply reacting to complicated stimulus. Even the act of reasoning is something beyond control. It's all the luck of the bang. I'm left with a sigh of resignation. Sure I may not be able to conceive how a big explosion can eventually result in the composition of this very comment, but look here it is! Morality becomes purely pragmatic. I just can't get my head around it! To accept a Godless existence the philosopher in me would need to kill himself! After all of these conversations I still cannot see how you can do it. Moreover, I cannot see why you would WANT such and existence. What does such a philosophy do for you on an emotional level?

The very concept of ‘higher meaning’ destroys the possibility of being able to provide it.

I'm trying to understand what it is you are saying here, but I think I'm going to need some help. Are you simply saying you can't see how God could analyze Himself? Or are you saying you cannot conceive eternity?

Thanks for giving this so much thought. It's an honor that you take what I have to say seriously enough to respond in such length.

1:49 PM

Blogger Tom Freeman said...

Alex, that’s a smashing piece of work. It really is great to debate with someone so willing to think carefully (and force me to do the same) – thank you! I’m going to reply with two comments: this one covers the more general issues, and the following one will be more technical on emergence.

“To accept a Godless existence the philosopher in me would need to kill himself!”

OK, your philosophical life is in my hands. I’ll try my best to be unconvincing!

To start on an almost positive note, I very nearly agree with this: “When man sees himself as the final stop on the chain of morality all becomes excusable.” I would agree if you’d said: “When a man sees himself as the final stop on the chain of morality all becomes excusable.” To say that there’s nobody above me doesn’t mean that there aren’t lots of others alongside me.

You see, the same logic that makes me think my own purposes and reasons are as real as purposes and reasons could be also compels me to the conclusion that everyone else’s are as well. Imagining a perspective beyond myself suggests to me that there could be no ‘higher’ form of purpose then my own personal ones, but looking down on myself it’s also inescapable that there are 6.5bn others with just the same type of purposes as mine. So my philosophy mandates a basic equality among consciously purposeful beings.

Tom: “all you seem to have to offer is nihilism with God bolted on (and a sigh of relief). In ourselves, we are worthless and everything we do is pointless.”
Alex: “I guess that depends on what God says about us now wouldn't it?”

No, no. You were right to back off from your claim that “I disagree that the intrinsic value of ANYTHING can exist without God.” Because of course that contradicts what ‘intrinsic’ means. If all our value depends on God, then we are, in ourselves, valueless. Which seems to me a lot less heart-warming than the view you think you’re selling. (But for what it’s worth, Alex, I think “you are better than the philosophy you claim to hold”…)

“in a Godless world-view how does one assert that what we think is meaningful is actually meaningful?”

It looks like we do agree about what we could call ‘subjective meaning’, which exists simply by our having preferences and intentions. Then on the other hand there’s what you’re after, which we could call ‘objective meaning’, which would transcend any subjectivity, any personal viewpoint. Now if this is what you’re getting at, then I think it doesn’t and couldn’t possibly exist, so that’s my answer to that.

(The nearest concept to this that I know is the idea of karma as an impersonal yet moral force of nature – but I can’t make much sense of that, and I doubt you’d go for it either. Alternatively, there’s a sense in which an viewpoint developed by many people in critical discussion will be more ‘objective’ than that of a single individual, but I don’t think that’s what you want either.)

But my outlook on this issue doesn’t actually depend on there being no God. Let me illustrate by answering your next question:

“Can you find a way to imbue the Big Bang with meaning?”

Yes, I can imbue it with subjective meaning by supposing it was a deliberate act. If God intentionally set it off to create a universe (and us in it), then it would have whatever subjective meaning God attached to it. And we, as well as having subjective meaning for ourselves – and for each other – would then have subjective meaning for God. But still, neither we nor it nor he would thereby have objective meaning.

If God is the eternal creator of all things, then OK, his meanings and purposes could fairly be described as ‘primary’ or ‘absolute’ or ‘ultimate’ – but this would only be in a chronological or causal sense. However fundamental he is to the rest of existence, his purposes are, logically speaking, still just his own subjective purposes.

As I said, my philosophy mandates a basic equality among consciously purposeful beings – and that includes God. If he exists, he deserves a vote. But only one vote.

Sure, I’m an atheist – that’s because I think the existence of a prefect creator is, on balance, very unlikely. And it’s probably true that if I had believed in God all these years I might not have come to the views I do about meaningfulness, but those views are logically independent of my atheism.

And what do I mean by “The very concept of ‘higher meaning’ destroys the possibility of being able to provide it”? I mean that the ability we have to look higher once is also the ability to keep looking higher and keep asking ‘but why?’ to any supposedly objective meaning that’s offered.

“what happens when you try and bring this message of 'truth' to the masses who are not nearly as thoughtful or educated as yourself?”

Actually, the masses seem to be OK with it. A UK poll last year found quite widespread acceptance that a godless humanist-ish moral outlook can work. Given a choice between ‘Human nature by itself gives us an understanding of what is right and wrong’ and ‘People need religious teachings in order to understand what is right and wrong’, 62% went for human nature and just 27% for religious teachings.

On another question, 65% endorsed ‘What is right and wrong depends on the effects on people and the consequences for society and the world’ against 15% for ‘What is right and wrong is basically just a matter of personal preference’ and 13% for ‘What is right and wrong is unchanging and should never be challenged’.

“What does such a philosophy do for you on an emotional level?”

I understand that coming to imagine existence as so much less than you had thought can be disheartening. But I find it hard to answer this really – the sheer finitude of it all doesn’t trouble me. (BTW I’ve never been religious other than in the vague peripheral way I once believed in the tooth fairy – so it’s not a question of me losing something.) There are basically two ways to look at my world view.

First, as you do, you could think that I’m missing out on the transcendent wonders that theism has to offer, so my existence may seem dark and empty by comparison. Second, as I do, you could think that the metaphysical transcendence on offer doesn’t really work when you look closely enough, and indeed that it couldn’t work because the concept doesn’t make sense – and so the loss of the logically impossible is no great loss.

4:06 AM

Blogger Tom Freeman said...

OK, comment no. 2 on emergence. Writing this is my punishment for throwing around contested concepts without clarifying them. And, like a good masochist, I relish my punishment.

When I linked to the Wikipedia piece I ignored the strong/weak distinction because I thought the piece’s explanation was incoherent (weak emergence is “new properties arising in systems as a result of the interactions at an elemental level”; strong emergence is “qualities not directly traceable to the system's components, but rather to how those components interact” – it sounds much the same).

But I’ve read that Chalmers paper now, and clearly Wikipedia fluffed his point. All the same, I think he’s on a hiding to nothing.

He says that strong emergence is “when the high-level phenomenon arises from the low-level domain, but truths concerning that phenomenon are not deducible even in principle from truths in the low-level domain”; and weak emergence is “when the high-level phenomenon arises from the low-level domain, but truths concerning that phenomenon are unexpected given the principles governing the low-level domain”.

This distinction falls to pieces because high-level facts are never deducible from the low-level facts, so in a sense all emergence is ‘strong’. But this fact about deducibility is to my mind very unremarkable, so the existence of ‘strong’ emergence is no more significant than ‘weak’ emergence. Let me explain with an example.

Given a certain distribution and movement of atoms over time, the distribution and movement of tectonic plates over that time is fixed. There’s nothing metaphysically spooky going on. So, if you know everything about the distribution and movement of these atoms – indeed, if you know everything about atomic physics – can you deduce the facts about tectonic shifts?

I think not. The reason is, very simply, that the concepts coming into play at the higher level of tectonics simply don’t figure in the lower level of atomic physics. There’s no crust, no mantle, no seafloor spreading, no viscosity, no shear strength, no faultlines, no seismic waves, no tectonic plates – there’s not even the difference between solid and liquid.

And for a deduction you need strict logical entailment. ‘The atoms moved like this; therefore the plates moved like that’ doesn’t work. The conclusion doesn’t follow. What you need is: ‘The atoms moved like this; and when atoms move like this, plates move like that; therefore the plates moved like that’. That is a valid deduction. But in order to get it, you can’t just start from facts about atomic physics.

The vital second premise in the valid deduction – ‘when atoms move like this, plates move like that’ – is not a truth “in the low-level domain”. It’s a truth that bridges the domains, or a translation guide between the two sets of scientific languages, if you like.

So how is it that we don’t find plate tectonics mysterious in relation to more basic physics? Easy: we don’t start from the bottom. We already have the higher-level facts and concepts. And when we peer closer to investigate how it all works, we can see how the causal roles of phenomena at the higher level are paralleled by specific types of interaction at a lower level. We put two and two together, but we don’t make a logical deduction from the lower to the higher.

I should probably declare something at this point: I’ve been round this track before. My BA dissertation was on consciousness, and Chalmers was a key figure in it. Back then he was saying much the same thing, only in terms of reduction and supervenience rather than emergence. As you note, he thinks that consciousness is the only ‘strongly emergent’ property that exists.

In fact, his attempted distinction between strong and weak is only drawn in order to facilitate his views about consciousness; and those views are motivated by intuition rather than rigorous argument. (His 1996 book was very influential on me, but not in the direction he’d intended.)

BTW you’re right that there’s no consensus among philosophers of mind, but his theory to my knowledge has only one follower. He specifically addresses ‘phenomenal consciousness’ or ‘qualia’ – what it’s like to see something red, the way it feels to be in pain, that sort of thing. He thinks that everything else about the mind – memory, reasoning, opinion, intention, self-doubt, the ability to write love sonnets or books about consciousness – is reducible to (or ‘weakly emergent’ from) physics. But raw phenomenal consciousness is a fundamental feature of the entire universe – although it has no causal effect on anything we say or do.

I have to stop now, or I’ll go on for hours and then lose my job! Plus I’m kinda rusty on this. But my view that the human mind in all aspects is (unmysteriously) emergent from/supervenient on/reducible to the functioning of the brain isn’t a faith position; I’ve spent some effort thinking about how in principle it could be so (although of course I could be mistaken). Sure, it’s not universally agreed, but for what little it might be worth, full-blown substance dualism is a distinctly minority position among philosophers of mind.

Also, just as my argument about subjective vs objective meaning doesn’t depend on my atheism, it doesn’t depend on my physicalism about the mind either – I could drop either for argument’s sake. I think that the key difference between us is in our view of whether any meaning could be other than subjective, and whether God’s existence affects this.

7:05 AM

Blogger Alex said...

Nice work Tom,
I need to work on Matt's current post, then take some time to process all this. Unlike yourself, I have not been through all this consciousness stuff before. I'm an art major for Pete's sake!

Talk to you soon.

7:36 AM


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