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

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The atheist's choice

Humanists have a long tradition of drawing on literature, poetry and art to illustrate their arguments. Some use the works of Shakespeare, some use that of William Blake.

I'm going to use a late 90s science-fiction TV show.

'Cos that's how I roll.

For those who don't know, 'Babylon 5' was a series whose reach often exceeded its grasp – despite the low-budget and sometimes embarrassing dialogue it was never afraid to tackle philosophical and ethical issues and normally managed to say something interesting along the way.

In the following clip the main character, Sheridan, is caught between life and death (for reasons far too complicated to go into) where he's offered (again for reasons too complicated to go into) the chance to live – but only if he wants it enough.



The reason I've posted this clip is that the decision that Sheridan has to make here is, I think, based on perhaps the most important question that an atheist has to answer: Why should I live?

According to Alex, there is no good answer. We're simply complex units of matter in an indifferent universe. Whether we live or die makes no difference.

But to me this doesn't mean that there are no good answers, only that there are no good a priori ones. The atheist must confront the fact that the universe provides us no good reason to live: Kill yourself and, from the universe's point-of-view, it makes no difference whatsoever.

But that still leaves us with the possibility of good a posteriori answers. Atheists must decide for themselves whether life is worth living. We must look at what we know and how we feel and decide whether it's worth going on or not. It's a personal choice – not one that can be made by anyone else. For some of us this reason will come from our relationships with those around us, or from an appreciation of the aesthetic quality of life. For some of us no reasons will be found – though, given the only alternative, this is quite rare (and often the result of errors of thinking rather than genuine disregard for life).

Only once this choice has been made, once we've learnt to embrace life and “simply be”, can we get on with the business of living. (Although this isn't to say that once answered the question never re-appears: self-evaluation of this kind is likely to be a fairly constant feature of life on some level or other).

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15 Comments:

Blogger Alex said...

Whew! Just finished classes as of yesterday!!! Now for a whopping 7 day reprieve to catch up on my own reading and writing, and also to do a little chit chatting on the ol'blog! Missed you guys as always. ;-)

Matt,
Great post! One that gets back to some pretty fundamental areas for us. I can't tell how strangely good it felt to reconsider this age old conversation of ours. (every quarter feels like an eternity!) Let's see what we can do with this latest contribution.

There were perhaps three philosophically significant statements in the Bab 5 clip:

1. "You're not embracing life. You're fleeing death."

2. "Your friends need what you can be when you are no longer afraid. When you know who you, and why you are, and what you want. When you are no longer looking for reasons to live, but can simply be."

3. "It's easy to find something worth dying for. Do you have anything worth living for?"

On 1. I don't think you'll get much disagreement out of me. Or in the words of another Anberlin song, "There's more to living than being alive." I think we both affirm this. (or at least would like to.)

Regarding 2. we have an interesting line of argumentation. Essentially it's that we should be considered at our best when we:

i. know who we are.

ii. know why we are.

iii. know what we want.

iv. are no longer looking for a reason to live but can simply be.

One can approach these question form two angles. One would be simply answering the questions in a rather straight forward manner. Taking this tack, thing are pretty simple. In answer to i. we would simply say our name; for ii. we would say because of the choices I've made along with some amount of luck/fate, etc... However, I'm not so sure such topical answers would do justice to the depth of the questions. It seems to me such an approach is myopic and does not take seriously the bigger picture.

Instead, I would suggest we explicitly examine our world view in light of these probing questions. What account does our wold view give when these questions are honestly asked of it? Matt, you and I entertain very different accounts of reality. I am tempted (as usual) to tell you how I see your position in-light of those questions. However, I'd suppose it would be more appropriate to invite you answer the above four questions yourself, rather than simply having me do my usual caricature. Here's how I see my world view addressing them:

i. I am a unique creation that is, in some ways, fashioned after the God who created all reality. I am morally responsible and able to exert a creative influence on the world by the use of my freedom of choice. I have a particular history of experiences in this world that have, in many ways, shaped me into the person I am today. I am largely defined by the nature of the relationships I keep with God, those around me and the physical world in general.

ii. I was created to be in right relationship with the God who is love, all humanity and creation.

iii. I want to know the depths of what it means to love. I want my heart to be open to our God who is ever working to bring about a world set to rights.

iv. err... be what?

Moving along to the final philosophical remark 3. I would simply note that this seems to contradict iv. quite badly. Am I misreading this somehow? Is it knowing what to live for that we are striving to find, or just being? Or is it knowing what we are living for so we can then get on with the "being?" Probably the latter hu? Okay, let's go with that for now. The question that again presents itself is, how does our world views go about answering this? My world view would say something along the lines of:

"Living" is living for the truth of our God who is love. Thus every relational act we engage in is ultimately an opportunity to express the relational love nature of God. That's worth living for because those who belong to God are to be his active agents in a world that is being redeemed. Living then, is our movements of participation with the center of reality.

Matt, your take?

And now for a couple closing questions/remarks concerning your exposition.

"Atheists must decide for themselves whether life is worth living."

Being the determinist you are, I'm still puzzled as to how you mean statements like this.

"It's a personal choice – not one that can be made by anyone else."

Are you reacting against something here? If so, what?

"For some of us this reason will come from our relationships with those around us, or from an appreciation of the aesthetic quality of life."

What you are getting at here seems to equate to, "I like x experience, therefore experiencing x will be my reason for living." And on one level this is obviously true. However, the bee in my bonnet is that if all reality is reducible to impersonal stuff doing things, then ultimately all talk of choosing to do this or that, wanting to live a life of such and such, or my life is meaningful because ______, is 1. absolutely absurd, 2. completely meaningless, because 3. all utterances are nothing more than the noises "stuff" makes as it does the things it necessarily does.

From where I sit, you are still chasing after something the atheistic world view simply cannot provide.

"Only once this choice has been made, once we've learnt to embrace life and 'simply be', can we get on with the business of living. ("

Certainly, but it seems to me you can't get on with the business of living until you've come to something resembling a peace on i.-iv.. Looking forward to your comments there.

11:26 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Hey Alex,

Nice to see you back in the fray.

I try not to get into deep philosophical discussions on a full stomach (I've just had dinner), so I'll come back to the main part of your comment tomorrow morning.

"all utterances are nothing more than the noises "stuff" makes as it does the things it necessarily does."

Why does it need to be anything more?

1:31 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Hey Matt,
I pray you have an agreeable digestive experience. When you return can you unpack your last comment a bit?

4:07 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

It was kind of a request that you unpack your comment.

Is your opposition to the idea that human thoughts/feelings/decisions occur within a causal framework a logical or intuitive one?

Now onto the questions.

One of the most interesting themes in 'Babylon 5' was that these questions are actually far more complex than we initially think - and that providing answers that are too simplistic or inflexible can cause serious problems. Life is a process of growth and so who we are, why we are and what we want will all change in response to new knowledge.

With that in mind...

i. I am Matt, one of the most complex entities that this universe has been able to create so far. To list all the various aspects of my being would require a) a far greater scientific knowledge than I currently possess and b) enough space to fill entire libraries of books. I am at once a part of the universe (in that my being is shaped by the same material and forces that shape it) and separate from it (in that my experience is limited to a particular location in space-time). My favourite colour is blue.

ii. My existence was initial due to chance within the evolutionary process. Now it is my choice whether to live or die.

iii. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure. Right now my goal is increased knowledge and critical skills - so that I'll be in a better and better place from which to answer this question.

iv. This is the goal in terms of state of mind. Being is not simply a case of having purpose - it's a case of accepting who you are and what your place in the universe is.

The question that again presents itself is, how does our world views go about answering this?

My world-view does not speak for me. It has brought me to a place where I can decide these questions for myself. The fact that I have to make this decision within an established framework is largely irrelevant. My choice is determined by physics, genetics and environment - but remove "me" (the particular collection of matter and relationships) from this set-up and the specific decision cannot be made, therefore it is "mine".

6:03 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

"It was kind of a request that you unpack your comment."

Certainly, but I was hoping to have a look at your assumptions before I took a stab at it. First, and most importantly, my incompatibilist / libertarian leanings are perfectly consistent with a causal framework. It is an oft repeated fallacy that libertarianism posits the rejection of casualty. This is simply not the case.

The point I am driving at begins with a rejection of compatibilism as nothing but a fancy word for determinism combined with so many redefinitions of terminology that we really aren't talking about the same thing by the time we're done. (Or in the words of Wallace Matson, "[compatibilism is] the most flabbergasting instance of the fallacy of changing the subject to be encountered anywhere in the complete history of sophistry ... [a ploy that] was intended to take in the vulgar, but which has beguiled the learned in our time") Heh, philosophers are fun when they get worked up! ;-)

From here we are left with incompatibilism. Either the world is exhaustively determined, (meaning there is no such thing as a possibility, only inevitability) or it's not. When faced with this dichotomy you have chosen determinism. From determinism, we must consider the principle of "ultimate responsibility" as argued by Robert Kane. For the determinist, ultimate responsibility is held within whatever "began" the whole show. Thus, you are responsible for your actions, choices, thoughts, loves, fears, aspirations and morals only in the same way that a toaster is "responsible" for making toast. Things are happening "through" you, but you do not ultimately "cause," or "choose" anything.

So my continual discomfort is this idea that we can talk meaningfully about life being "worth" living, or "It's our choice to make", if the bottom line is that our lives were exhaustively determined by the conditions of the beginning of the universe. (or else totally random)

But let's be honest here, libertarian freedom is not a simple, easily understood position either. However, if used as a transcendental postulate we can at least cary on a meaningful conversation. Either we operate on the assumption that the future is in some ways "open" to us, or we believe "I'm just gonna do what I do." Where we fall on this question MUST effect how we act in this world.

I cannot help but feel we need to come to some resolution on this before continuing, as you continue to appeal to "my goals", "my mind" etc... as if you possessed some measure of ultimate responsibility. I cannot see how you can avoid a simply fatalistic outlook while maintaining that determinism is the truth we exist in.

"Being is not simply a case of having purpose - it's a case of accepting who you are and what your place in the universe is."

Seems to me you don't have a choice. On your view, whether or not you accept your place or not is due to factors beyond your (or anyone's) control. By my reckoning, recommending the discernment and acceptance of one's place in this universe is meaningful because we don't HAVE to do what it is we are presently doing. Other options are genuinely available to us. For the determinist, they're not.

"My world-view does not speak for me."

I didn't ask you to have your world view to speak for you, as if one was separate from the other. Your operations and your world view are intertwined. You have, from the beginning, maintained atheism as the story by which you live. When I ask a question like this, I am simply asking, "how do you answer this question given they way you see the world?"

If there is an innuendo that I am simply cracking a book and having it answer questions for me, I'm afraid you've got me wrong. Though, given our history, I can't imagine you'd suggest something like that.

"therefore it is mine'".

Yes, but here again, it is "yours" only in the same way we would say it was a boulder's choice to roll down a hill. Sure, without the boulder, it would never have undertaken the journey, but we would never hold it responsible for any destruction it wrought along its path. If determinism obtains, then the same MUST be true of you and your choices. They are yours insofar as they happen through you, but ultimate responsibility lies far prior to your sentience.

And if that is the case, this is all pointless.

9:43 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Hi Alex,

I've read your recent post - so what I'm writing here should be seen as a response to both your comment here and that.

It is an oft repeated fallacy that libertarianism posits the rejection of casualty.

As I understand it, libertarianism only accepts causality up to a point. So something is, for example, 90% caused but then has a bit of leeway for libertarian free will to come in excuse the decision from the causal process. It's the fact that this process is completely mysterious (cannot be proven, cannot be described) that makes me incredibly wary of it.

Things are happening "through" you, but you do not ultimately "cause," or "choose" anything.

I have no problem with this. Compatibalism simply discards the word “ultimate” as irrelevant to our day-to-day actions. Look at our attitude towards cars: Ultimately, everything that the car does is determined by the set-up of the universe. But we still talk about “a” car breaking down or making a strange noise – because the most relevant level on which such an action occurs is the local one. If, when asked what was wrong with the car, the mechanic started going on about fundamental physics you'd quickly find a different garage.

When I talk about a person choosing this or that I focus on what's happening at the level of the individual because that's the most relevant.

So compatibalism is simply the idea that talk of individual choice still makes sense in a determined universe.

Either we operate on the assumption that the future is in some ways "open" to us, or we believe "I'm just gonna do what I do." Where we fall on this question MUST effect how we act in this world.

There's a radical difference between something being determined and something being known. The latter, in my opinion, inspires apathy towards life in a way that the former does not. For example, I'm going for drinks on Friday night with a few friends. I believe that what will happen is determined – that what I'm going to do and say is as set as the fact that flowers will turn towards sunlight, but, as the level of knowledge required to accurately predict what I'm going to say and do is unimaginably vast, there is currently no-one in the known universe who knows what that is.

In my opinion, it is the experience of life that provides its value, not its “openess” (whatever that means). We find ourselves moved by plays, films and music – even though they are all often set in stone before we've even sat down. Life is like that experience on a level billions of times more intense.

Que sera, sera.

ultimate responsibility lies far prior to your sentience

In the ultimate analysis, it's all the universe's fault.

And if that is the case, this is all pointless.

Looks like you've made your choice. :-)

But are you really telling me that you look at the world around you and the people that inhabit it and think that without some kind of metaphysical crutch they mean absolutely nothing to you?

11:32 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
Off for a run at the moment, but I can't help but respond to this:

"But are you really telling me that you look at the world around you and the people that inhabit it and think that without some kind of metaphysical crutch they mean absolutely nothing to you?"

Not at all. The fact that world around me and the people that inhabit it mean so much to me tells me they can't mean absolutely nothing.

However as I see it, that's exactly what atheism would have us believe. On atheism, humanity in general and you in particular mean nothing. You will surely object that humanity means something to you. But that's just my point, you can't buy into the larger atheistic programme. On atheism you/I cannot be anything other than what the universe is. If the universe is just an indifferent stew of impersonal matter, I simply do not see where you find grounds to claim the privileged position from which to declare it "valuable" or "good" to care for anything or anyone. Why should your cosmic blubbering be any more valuable or true than the decomposition of a corpse? I reject this. You are valuable and worth caring about. You are worth listening to. Whether you believe it or not, you are a child of the God who made us both. And he loves you with an unending love.

As much as I appreciate my world view being called a "metaphysical crutch." It's what I think is true. And it's why I think atheism is wrong. And until I'm given good reason to, it will be my position.

Now, for that run I was talking about...

12:11 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Hey Alex,

I didn't mean to imply that your entire world view was a crutch - just that certain concepts were. Sorry if I sounded dismissive.

On atheism, humanity in general and you in particular mean nothing.

To whom?

To the universe? Who cares what the universe thinks? To people? That's clearly wrong.

I simply do not see where you find grounds to claim the privileged position from which to declare it "valuable" or "good" to care for anything or anyone

Maybe I'm not making myself clear enough. (Actually, scratch that "maybe"). When say that something is valuable or good I simply mean that it's valuable or good to me. And I don't need a privileged position to do that.

Enjoy the run.

1:07 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

To start todays discussion off on the right foot, I think it should first be noted that...

HAPPY BIRTHDAY MATT!!!

There's nothing like celebrating one more trip around the sun! Hope you have some good things planned by way of celebration. Just try not to get too stupid drunk. That never seems to end well for you. ;-)

Aaaaaalright then. Starting here:

"I didn't mean to imply that your entire world view was a crutch - just that certain concepts were. Sorry if I sounded dismissive."

Thanks Matt, I know you didn't mean it to be insulting. However by terming it (incompatibilist libertarian freedom I'm assuming) a crutch, I don't think you are taking seriously what I'm recommending here.

"To the universe? Who cares what the universe thinks?"

And here again is my point. Via atheism, you are nothing other than what the universe is. Also via atheism, the universe is ultimately reducible to impersonal "stuff" doing things. There is no meaning, purpose, value, worth, beauty or love. Thus, by arguing that we ought not care what the universe thinks, we can extend this logic in a straight line directly to you and your supposed, "feelings." The conclusion then being we ought not care about what Matt thinks, or Alex, or Tom, or anyone.

In your own words, "That's clearly wrong." and that is my whole point. Clearly this is wrong. But why? If you begin to posit "emergent properties" of matter, (which I grant occurs) you must still deal with the concept of latency, either by way of the particulars, or in the system as a whole. Either way, you have dormant within the Cosmic Burst the inherent potential to create the phenomenally complicated occurrence of what we simply label as "personhood."

It does not seem reasonable to argue that the stream has risen higher than it's source. Rather, it seems to me more reasonable to argue that the very fact we are personal beings that possess the capacity to love, create beauty, etc... must mean that our ultimate origin is at least capable of the same. To deny this leaves you in the question begging and counterintuitive position of affirming that effects can be greater than their causes. Atheism affirms that our ultimate origin is less than we. It is impersonal. It does not perceive or experience. It has no purpose.
From here the atheist must either place themselves in the dubious position of believing effects can somehow be greater than their causes, or else all all our experiences must be reducible to impersonal "stuff" doing things.

You see the latter playing out in the popular psyche all over the place. Just recently Time magazine had an article that essentially argued that all are experiences of love are "nothing more" than simple chemical reactions. (after all we are just chemical machines.) Well there you have it. They took the easy road. Our experiences are believed to be reducible to their component parts. From our past conversations you don't seem to buy this. Instead you seem more inclined to want to affirm the first option, that the effect can somehow be greater than it's cause. I would like to hear your argument for this.

Thankfully I'm not in that position. As a Christian my cause is vastly greater than it's effect, therefore it's not surprising that the world is an incredible place filled with astonishing intricacy and connectivity. It's not surprising to me that we are sentient personal agents with the freedom to love, sing and be morally responsible. It's not surprising, because I know the God who created it all is echoed in all it's beauty and wonder.

And now for what I intended to write about in the first place:

"As I understand it, libertarianism only accepts causality up to a point."

Well according to Robert Kane, one of the foremost proponents of libertarian freedom, this is a commonly repeated misconception. Simply because something is not determined does not entail that it was not caused. The difference between determinism, and libertarian accounts is that in determinism "the universe made you do it", while libertarian accounts would say that "I" did it. We possess ultimate responsibility.

"It's the fact that this process is completely mysterious (cannot be proven, cannot be described) that makes me incredibly wary of it."

Which seems odd to me since you must assume it with every genuine deliberation you make. One would thing a persistent and ongoing experience of a certain phenomena would count for something.

"Look at our attitude towards cars:..."

And this is very telling, actually. When was the last time you blamed a car for breaking? ...Okay, maybe that's a bad question ;-) Let's phrase it this way, when was the last time you felt that blaming a car for breaking was a reasonable course of action? (hopefully) We would all agree it is best to answer in the negative. We don't blame cars because they just do what they do. They can't help it.

Point is. There's something different about us and cars.

The totality of our social fabric is built on the assumption that we genuinely posses the capacity to do otherwise. Kane makes the argument that most of our choices are to a large degree determined (perhaps influenced would be a better word) by our character. From here he argues that it is ultimately us who form our characters with each "self-forming action" we choose. Our characters then are slowly fashioned over time by the results of decisions where we are genuinely torn to move one way or the other. On this view we are, to some degree, "responsible" for our character and therefore still morally accountable when we act according to it.

"compatibalism is simply the idea that talk of individual choice still makes sense in a determined universe."

I see your point here, but it still seems off. We talk of cars in a localized fashion. True. But we do not talk about cars "choosing" this or that. There's a difference. If the universe (and by extension "we") are determined then, no, it does not make sense to speak of choice. It would only make sense to make statements of fact. You could say, "He killed her.", but not "He chose to kill her."

"In my opinion, it is the experience of life that provides its value, not its “openess” (whatever that means).

You speak as if this is a dichotomy. I'm not arguing for openness over and against experience. Each of our accounts has "experience." and yes it is true that that provides the possibility of "value", but only so far as it goes. The real question is what is more valuable? Is it a universe where our experience is simply an odd fluke of material being driven on a straight line that only provides the illusion that "we" are able to influence the direction of our life? Or is it a view that says that our experience of responsibility and freedom of choice are real? According to the latter, it really matters what choices we make, because, to some degree, we have the power to bring about alternate realities.

Your position would apparently have me as nothing more than a chemical stew that you only interact with because you can't help it. What does that say of me? What does that say of you? Unless we have the genuine ability to participate in the direction of our own life then you should not feel pleased that I write to you, that I drop you an email from time to time or that I mentioned your birthday. I can't help myself. I'm just a cloud of atoms, doing what atoms necessarily do. And the same would go for me. Via determinism, you writing me an email should register the same emotional reaction as a stone rolling down a hill. I say it should, but clearly it doesn't. I feel a sensation of pleasure when you shoot me a note just to see how things are going. Why? Because I don't believe you "had" to. I don't view you as a determined chemical machine. You are a free person and by you taking the time to interact with me it communicates that you must care about what's going on with me and our conversations. That is meaningful. On the other hand, were you nothing but a determined program, even the fact that I don't "know" what you are going to do would not diminish the fact that you can't help yourself, and thus, render your actions far less poignant.

"Looks like you've made your choice."

Well ya, but not in the way you seem to think. I reject your account of the universe. As such I do not see "this all" to be pointless. Far from it. What I'm arguing is that if you were to live consistently you simply must view everything to be pointless. Either that, or you should get yourself in the market for a new world view. You know what I'd recommend...

Sadly, I'm going to have to break this off. They just posted our classes for this next quarter and we have 3 classes this time instead of 2. Which means I really need to get a jump on all that. I will probably do my best to respond a couple more times, in brief, but it would not be expedient for me to undertake comments of this length from here on out... and that holds whether or not I submit to the temptation!

Good to reconnect for a bit. You keep me sharp brother, and I thank you for that! Have yourself a good b-day!

10:26 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Thanks Alex.

I have a tradition of doing very little on the actual day. (A tradition that arose from my tendency to leave arranging something until the very last minute). So my plans for today are... getting a hair cut. I'm off out for drinks tomorrow though (and my brother's coming down from London) so that should be fun.

Will get back to your comments when I've had a chance to mull them over. No worries about not replying in detail - Just the chance to try to get my thoughts down in a coherent way is enough for me.

Have fun studying.

10:52 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Hey man, there' s nothing wrong with a good hair cut... assuming it's a "good" one! That should be a good time with your bro coming down. Do you get to see him much? Tell him your argumentative American friend says hey. I'll be off to "the farm" here for Easter. It's always great to hang out with the fam there. One last weekend of relative calm before the plunge!

Hope you all have a great time!

10:59 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Sorry to muscle in. Interesting comments, although we're going around in circles in some parts!

Via atheism, you are nothing other than what the universe is.

Agreed.

Also via atheism, the universe is ultimately reducible to impersonal "stuff" doing things.

Personal/impersonal is a subjective adjective, though.

"There is no meaning, purpose, value, worth, beauty or love."

The perceptions of these all correlate immensely with the activity of the machine in our heads. Removal of an abstract notion of purpose will not change the manner in which those neuronal circuits fire when the sun sets, or one catches a hint of a passing stranger's cologne.

"The conclusion then being we ought not care about what Matt thinks, or Alex, or Tom, or anyone."

As Matt has pointed out before, that is a perfectly legitimate option, but it seriously undermines one's chances of survival. Those who take that route are out-competed by those who are better disposed to cooperation.

"...phenomenally complicated..."

Careful, this is again a subjective, experiential value statement. We have no idea how to define complexity in the universe. Look at a fractal generated from the Mandelbrot set: is it simply, or complicated? There's no answer for that.

"Just recently Time magazine had an article that essentially argued that all are experiences of love are "nothing more" than simple chemical reactions."

This raises the issue of whether our minds live on after those reactions stop. Never know that for sure, but we could reasonably ask this question of a putative creator: if mind doesn't require matter, then why bother with matter? Of course, we don't need to answer the life after death question to know that mind and matter are inextricably linked. Otherwise, narcotics wouldn't be quite so effective.

"Atheism affirms that our ultimate origin is less than we."

I disagree. It says that you can't make that sort of value judgment and call it objective. Again, we have no objective starting point from which to decide what is, or is not, more valuable than something else. We can only make subjective statements that are governed by our own evolutionary development, and thus clearly biased.

"Thankfully I'm not in that position. As a Christian my cause is vastly greater than it's effect, therefore it's not surprising that the world is an incredible place filled with astonishing intricacy and connectivity."

But you've arrived at this position arbitrarily. It's a convenient and comforting answer that, for purely arbitrary reasons, is more acceptable to you than the plethora of alternatives supplied by other faiths. All of which share a common desire to shape the world in a manner that fits within a framework of historical preconceptions, rather than allow the world's true identity to shape and evolve their views.

The irony here is that the strong desire all of us have for the world to fit in with our preconceptions is buried deep within our genes. The visual cortex, in particular, is a classic example of how our brain endeavours to crowbar every experience, no matter how novel, to fit in with our previous experiences. And so there's something in the suggestion that those who are truly the slaves to "the machine" tend to be those who so readily obey its more primitive impulses to seek conformity in the chaotic and unknown universe around us.

"Via determinism, you writing me an email should register the same emotional reaction as a stone rolling down a hill. I say it should, but clearly it doesn't."

No. Because the stone rolling down the hill doesn't tickle his dopamine quite as much as a Happy Birthday.

"If the universe (and by extension "we") are determined then, no, it does not make sense to speak of choice."

Again, "choice" is a relative term. The universe and everything in it is subject to relativity. Until you can know the future, you can never suggest that you have been deprived of "choice". You "reality" as you observe it renders the truth about determinism completely irrelevant. Determinism is something that we, at best, can only predict with numbers. We can never experience it any more than we can experience a quark or a muon.

"What I'm arguing is that if you were to live consistently you simply must view everything to be pointless."

He can't. As you have yourself pointed out he is the product of his physiology, and thus he feels. Again, abstract reasoning cannot nullify pleasure or pain. Our nervous system doesn't cease to work the moment that the absolute truth of the impersonal universe is made clear to us (as occurs according to Douglas Adams). We are machines built to respond regardless.

Oops, gotta run!

4:48 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Hey, Alex,,

Hope you have a great Easter.

You covered a lot of ground in your last post, so it's probably best if I reply in a series of posts.

Via atheism, you are nothing other than what the universe is.

I may have missed it, but I don't recall you every actually pointing out how you know that theism lifts you up above the universe. Sure, if you have an omnipotent being at your disposal you get around any state of affairs - but do you have anything other than "I think I'm free" to back up your position? Or is this a "trust in God" kind of issue?

(Besides, I'm not entirely sure that this is really a serious atheist/theist thing. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't Kane's concept of a self-forming action devoid of any reference to Gods or souls? And there are plenty of atheist dualists. Not to mention theistic determinists).

Also, you seem to be contrasting how you experience life now and how you think you'd experience it as part of the universe. Imagine listening to beautiful music, spending time with good friends, watching your children play... that's what being an aspect of the universe is like. We all all an inseparable part of the universe - which is a mind-blowingly awe-inspiring, amazing (and scary) thing to be.

When I watch a sunset or make someone laugh I'm happy for them just to be what they are - I don't need God watching over it all to provide my meaning, purpose, value, worth, beauty or love with validity. What is, is. And it's enough. It's often more than enough.

9:17 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

It does not seem reasonable to argue that the stream has risen higher than it's source.

So an object is never more than the sum of its parts? A functioning computer is obviously more complex than a box full of computer parts - not because of any supernatural property, but simply because the relationship of the parts is fundamental to its character.

It's the same with human beings. Separate an individual out into his or her various chemicals or atoms and you'd just have "mindless stuff". Assemble them in the right way, however, and though the emergent relationships you'd have a being capable of feeling, thinking and acting. This isn't so much adding something to the universe so much as drawing upon previously untapped potential complexity. All that we are and ever will be was present as potentiality in the first nano-second after the big bang in the same way that the computer exists as potentiality in the box full of computer parts.

We see ourselves as better than what has come before simply because our perspective as biased. We see being human as worthwhile because it's what we know. From an external viewpoint it's less clear-cut. If we take potential for survival as the ultimate marker of value then we're probably beaten by a mile by microscopic life.

I'm not saying that I'd prefer to be a bacteria, just that it's not certain that a bacteria would want to be a human being.

10:22 AM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

Matt: Who cares what the universe thinks?

Alex: Via atheism, you are nothing other than what the universe is. Also via atheism, the universe is ultimately reducible to impersonal "stuff" doing things.

Well, the universe as a whole doesn’t think at all. Parts of the universe, like you and me, do think things. ‘Purpose’ is inherently perspectival. The universe doesn’t have a perspective; we each do. If there were a God, he’d have one as well.

Nobody (pace Basil Fawlty) blames a car for breaking. Cars don’t have beliefs, desire and intentions, so blame would be a category mistake. But cars have fan-belts and axles and carburetors, so that’s the level we deal with cars on. The fact that cars are wholly reducible to subatomic particles is irrelevant: the axles are still real, and that’s the level where the action is intelligible.

To deal with human behaviour, by analogy, you start from the obvious fact that we have beliefs, desires and intentions; reducibility to subatomic particles is equally beside the point both on practical grounds and because reducibility doesn’t imply non-existence (in fact, exactly the reverse). This, BTW, has nothing to do with atheism: it’s physicalism.

The stream rising above the source? The matter and energy resulting from the Big Bang had the potential to form atoms, which had the potential to form molecules. Blah blah planets, chemicals, autocatalytic sets, cells amoebae slugs chimps humans. We’re not a pinnacle; we’re the current condition of one of very many branches.

Evolution produces organisms that are good at reproducing themselves. In some environments, for some organisms, intelligence is useful and so it may gradually develop. But there are plenty of other successful ways of reproducing. The cockroaches will outlast us and the bacteria will outlast them. Our emergent characteristics aren’t metaphysically something ‘over and above’ whatever was ‘latent’ in any previous stage.

This ‘latency’ sounds suspiciously like an unopened set of carefully written instructions – if so, it’s question-begging. If not, then I don’t see why it should preclude the development of entities with properties not existing in their predecessors.

Happy Easter!

7:43 AM

 

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