Thursday, April 29, 2010

Agree / Disagree


Agree / Disagree

"If there is one indisputable fact about the human condition it is that no community can survive if it is persuaded—or even if it suspects—that its members are leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe."

The quote is from Irving Kristol, the late neoconservative social commentator. He was explaining why neocons often reject Darwinism. Of course, I would take issue with the presumption that evolution = nihilism. But apart from the context, Kristol claims this to be an indisputable social principle. Is it?

62 comments:

BrownPanther said...

1/3 agree. No, if people are convinced their lives are without meaning, I don't believe they can survive as a society/species/individual.
I disagree with his "suspect" bit. I would take "suspect" to imply an examination. Questioning our meaning (or possibility of meaninglessness) can, and typically is, very enriching.
Finally, I don't think a "meaningful universe" is at all a necessary part of the human experience, but I'm sure there are several ways to interpret that. Because it's referenced alongside personal meaning, I'm going to assume it refers to an external source of meaning on a transcendent level. I don't think this is necessary. There are more than enough (although definitely a minority of) cultural world views that aren't reliant on external meaning in order to thrive to demonstrate this.

Cliff Martin said...

BrownPanther,

The "cultural world views" you have in mind ... are they society wide? That is, can you site a significant community of people who are thriving who are collectively materialists?

I think Kristol might agree that materialistic world views, and those who hold them, may survive and thrive; but they do so only within a social milieu which owes its health to a predominate world view which includes transcendent meaning. That is, I suppose when he says "no community can survive if it is persuaded ..." he has in mind the predominating persuasion of that community.

BrownPanther said...

I'd have to re-research more soon (unfortunately my knowledge of human culture isn't comprehensive...yet), but I would argue that there are/have been large societies that subscribe to forms of Taoism that don't give "meaning" to the universe. It simply Is in their view. The meaning comes from our attitudes toward the universe and what we perceive our place to be in it.
I'm not aware of any Euro-western societies that have similar views, although their are various American Indian tribes and independent tribal subsets that, historically held similar world views, particularly pre-European involvement (as far as we can tell). Some Hopi bands, to name just one, held perspectives similiar to Taoists. Granted, they're not materialists in every sense. For example, the Taoists refer to "energies" that they call the "dust of the earth," or Tao (literally, "the Way") a patterning of everything or an order. I think that idea is separate from "meaning" though because there's no implication of intent in said order. In any case, these were certainly the dominant view within the overarching culture on varying geographical scales.
Also, large swathes of sub-saharan and southern African cultures (autonomous bands of !Kung for example) hold animistic views that don't entail any external meaning. They're materialists of sorts. Although they have beliefs in forms of "witchcraft" and other phenomenon that we call supernatural, the beliefs tend to more closely resemble a different naturalistic interpretation rather than a metaphysical one, with no metaphysical sense of meaning.

Cliff Martin said...

I agree that those people groups qualify as "communities" as Kristol uses the word. I would argue that they do not live meaningless lives in what they would consider a meaningless universe. Most of those groups subscribe to some form of pantheism ... even animism is a subset of pantheism. I doubt if those societies would agree that their lives or their universe is meaningless. They would all subscribe to a metaphysical reality IMO (despite your statement to the contrary). From the context, I assume Kristol is referring to doctrinaire materialism which tends toward nihilism. I would guess he might turn his own statement around and state it positively this way: "Materialism, and its consequent nihilism, if it should become the predominate view of a community will lead the downfall of that community." Would you agree with that?

BrownPanther said...

I didn't mean to imply that those societies' lives were meaningless either. I meant to use them as examples of those who derive meaning from a life without a meaningful universe.

Under the more workable definition, no I don't think I'd agree. I'm not totally willing to say conclusively though. There's not really a precedent in our experience. One, I don't think materialism necessitates nihilism. I don't even think it has to necessarily be a common result. I think that our association between materialism and a nihilistic product stems more from what has been, for many, a poor transition from a providential universe-based view to a materialistic one. There's more than one way to navigate that transition. At this point, I'd describe myself as a materialist (maybe you'd disagree), but my transition was quite a bit different from, say, Nietzsche's. I don't think I'm that unique. I think others could too. I think we could all be stuck on an island somewhere without the overarching Western theological narrative to fall back on.
The question that would seem more interesting/relevant to me is, if the culture moved toward total materialism, what would a healthy transition look like? Do you think that's possible? I think that shift would be slow, but advances in neuroscience, A.I., and the resulting philosophies have a lot of potential to lubricate that shift.

Cliff Martin said...

I don't have a strong opinion about Kristol's assertion either way, but I agree with you that we probably have not seen a truly materialist society, and so we don't know what it would be like. And while I agree that there are plenty of materialists who are not (yet) nihilistic, you would need to convince me that nihilism is anything other than materialism taken to its logical end. I don't see how one's path of transition changes that. Nor do I see how your transition is significantly different from Nietzsche's, whom I consider a brutally honest materialist.

Tom said...

Cliff,

At the heart of your question, you are asking whether or not meaning is extrinsic or intrinsic. Your stance seems to be that it is extrinsic and that we humans are seeing through the glass dimly. It is sort of the argument RBH used with Gordon on a comment on my blog back in the day, where we can ask about mathematics: is it external and awaiting human discovery, or is it a human construct?

The extrinsic argument must be difficult for theistic evolutionists. Basically, you are saying that life is/was meaningless for pre-Abraham humans because they did not have access to God and this said meaning. It means other non-believers and animals do not lead (really) meaningful lives. If this is the case, why would God have those of us who don't believe, or animals who will never impact the course of humanity around?

I have put a lot of thought into this "meaning" question. Of course I do not have the answers, but I cannot define "meaning" without talking about patterns to describe relationships between entities. In fact, I'm thinking patterns and meaning are equivalent, and since patterns beget patterns, we have evolved meaning.

Cliff Martin said...

Tom,

For the sake of this discussion, I am setting aside questions of ultimate truth. So I might refine your distinction this way: intrinsic meaning verses perceived extrinsic meaning.

I suppose that Kristol would say that if meaning is purely intrinsic, subjective, personal, we may still be left with a meaningless universe. Do you agree? And while it is clear that societies have ascribed (and still do ascribe) different "extrinsic meaning" to the universe, the fact that a society lives within the context of some meta-narrative provides continuity and meaning to that society, without which it would not long survive.

If we ever were to concur that such a shared transcendental meaning is necessary for social health, then we could begin to discuss 1) what that says about ultimate reality, and 2) how the various human constructs might point to ultimate truth.

BrownPanther said...

Gah! Intrinsic/extrinsic meaning: why didn't I think of that vocab usage before?! The transition is difficult only if one, like Nietzsche, is reliant on extrinsic meaning and then sloughs off the belief of an extrinsic source. This is what would be difficult for the West in general. The culture is very much tied into Extrinsic meaning. Not s'much for, say, many Eastern, African, or American Indian philosophies which are inwardly focused.
So, if someone can discard their supernatural views and transition to a life that draws meaning intrinsically, I don't see why a materialist view would necessitate nihilism in the long run. I too agree that Nietzsche was boldly honest in both his materialism and crushing nihilism, but one doesn't necessitate the other unless one believes meaning has to come from without.

BrownPanther said...

p.s. I get a kick out your addressing me as "BrownPanther" on here :)

Cliff Martin said...

"I don't see why a materialist view would necessitate nihilism in the long run."

Perhaps because in the long run this material universe comes to nothing.

"p.s. I get a kick out your addressing me as 'BrownPanther' on here :)"

For those who may not know, BrownPanther is a very good personal friend. But, Brown, I try to honor one's chosen avatar unless asked to do otherwise.

BrownPanther said...

I guess I'm talking about "the long run" on a human scale. Finding meaning in a permanent product of our existence is still an external source of meaning. We don't and won't live in the distant future. We live in the present, always. This is why, no matter how much someone gets paid, if they hate their job, they're unhappy. It doesn't make any sense to live and toil for that fleeting instance when a goal is met only to set a new goal. That's the pitfall of a goal/future-oriented sense of meaning. If we can't find meaning in the present, it doesn't do us much good, which renders the inevitable degradation of everything we know irrelevant as far as meaning is concerned. I'm not convinced Sisyphus's struggle would be any less arduous or any less of a punishment if each boulder he raised resulted in the culmination of some grand, permanent temple. Let the material amount to nothing, it doesn't change the fact that I, you, and everyone else matters to me right now and it's not gone yet.

BrownPanther said...

No, I don't want you to stop calling me BrownPanther. Quite the opposite. You should get it to stick in real life too!

Cliff Martin said...

Well, that's not going to happen!

I think you know that I am not a "pie in the sky by and by" type of believer. I abhor that sort of motivational manipulation perhaps as much as you do. However, I do derive a lot of meaning and purpose in my "right now" life from my hope that there are some very permanent consequences to my temporal life. And if I did not believe that there will be justice for those who knew only abuse and misuse here; if I did not believe that the lives of children slaughtered in the holocaust somehow matter, that their deaths are ennobled in some eternal way; if I actually thought that all suffering is utterly meaningless, and will never be redeemed; I can assure you, I would join Nietzsche on the precipice of the abyss. I would need to run hard to escape a nihilistic outlook. How do you it?!?

Cliff Martin said...

Nihilism (from the Latin nihil, nothing) is the philosophical doctrine suggesting the negation of one or more meaningful aspects of life. Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value.

BrownPanther, you deny that nihilism is the necessary culmination of a materialistic world view. I assume you would claim not to be nihilistic. In terms of the above definition (from the Wikipedia article on nihilism), are you not a Nihilist?

Tom said...

First of all, let me apologize for 1) not being a philosopher and 2) inappropriately using "intrinsic" and "extrinsic". While I think my previous comment stands with these terms, better terms would have been simply "internal" and "external". That is, if meaning is only internal, then it is self-ascribed. If it is external, then meaning exists beyond the individual and it is discovered and applied.

Now, from Wikipedia's Existential Nihilism section:
Existential nihilism is the belief that life has no intrinsic meaning or value. It can stem from scientific analysis showing that only the physical laws contributed to our existence. With respect to the universe, a single human or even the entire human species is insignificant, without purpose and is not likely to change in the totality of existence. Quite simply, nihilists in this respect believe that the only purpose in life is to live it.

This gobbledygook definition makes me dizzy. I think wanting to live is generally an intrinsic feature of living creatures. Were it not so, evolution would have weeded it out. Duh! So why go on living? At its core, evolution says that your life has value if it can reproduce and have babies. Call that an apparent lower-bound, if you will. Now, again just evolutionarily speaking, if you do not have babies, that does not make your life meaningless. If your actions help propagate the species, then that is also of worth. This can come through good or bad actions. The good actions would obviously help build the species. The bad actions might be indicators for others not to follow your stupid course -- others learning from your mistakes. The fact is, you exist and you direct the course of natural and human history. You are not a complete bystander to Nature's whims.

Part of the existentialist claim is that existence precedes essence. This seems to follow what happens with natural selection. Something exists, and then it is operated on by the environment to determine its worth.

I see evolution as the accrual of patterns -- patterns begetting patterns. My materialist view believes love, humor, frustration, and sneezes all came about through this mechanism, and like Darwin stated at the end of Origin, we are still evolving. My life's meanderings might not amount to all that, but I hope that I can at least help pave the way for my kids to have even a better earthly experience than I've had. This is generally every parent's hope. That guiding principle has lead us from bacteria to the emotional animals we are today. Who knows where the system will take us in another billion years!

Cliff Martin said...

Tom,

Leaving the world a better place may work for some, for awhile at least. But what about the terminal generation? There will be one, you know.

Your use of "intrinsic" and "extrinsic" were understood, and the somewhat different use of the term "intrinsic" in the Wiki definition of nihilism is unfortunate. I did not mean to disagree with your usage, or call attention to it.

I grant most of your comments re. how it is that much of life's meaning, and the will to live it, is evolutionarily derived. These evolutionary developments could be the Creator's means of ensuring species propagation.

And while I cannot say with certainty that your chosen materialist view that meaning is purely subjective and temporal is wrong, I will say that I hope you are wrong. Among the reasons I hope for a larger reality, a transcendent purpose, is this: such a transcendent purpose is our only hope for making sense of all the suffering in this process. Suffering is a major theme of life. A materialist must, in the end, say all suffering is meaningless. Oh, I suppose there may be some forms of suffering that further the cause of life, but surely most of it does not. The inhumanity of man which causes so much suffering today (right this moment) must have an answer. My chosen view is that there is an answer, there is justice, and all suffering is profoundly significant and purposeful.

The oft-repeated mantra of the atheist, that we can make it our purpose to leave the earth a better place for our children, seems pitifully trivial when put up against the vast quantities of animal and human suffering which the planet has known over the last several hundred million years.

You may respond that we can marshal our efforts toward the elimination of suffering ... But I do not see that happening. Do you? The suffering that stems from human injustices just saw its worst century ever. And I see no signs of its abating.

So, for my money, any proposed meaning for life which fails to account for suffering is no meaning at all. Hence, materialism leads inexorably to nihilism.

Rich G. said...

I have one question:

In 'meaning' is purely subjective, just how is one to determine whether anything is either better or worse than anything else? Even the concepts of good, bad, progress, etc. become constructs of simple opinion and self-centered interest.

Rich G.

Argon said...

I'll start with the caveat that I'm not completely sure what 'meaning' means.

I worry that attributing 'purpose' and 'meaning' to divine fiat runs into the same problem as the case of divinely inspired morality and ethics (e.g. the Euthyphro dilemma). There is a good series of blog posts about the whether God is necessary for the independent existence of morality here:
http://philosophicaldisquisitions.blogspot.com/2010/04/must-goodness-be-independent-of-god.html

I'm a bit sympathetic to the notion that nature has selected those who really want to live and that this could provide some of the extrinsic 'drive' ('extrinsic' in the sense that it's not something we actively chose or can choose - Parts are built into us). So --probably it's part nature and part nurture. Do we need meaning? Perhaps not but I'll agree that it often makes us feel better. Still, I think we can create that sense ourselves, even if we suspect the rest of the universe doesn't care.



(I'll also note that in many cases it appears that Kristol was a bit cynical about 'the masses', suggesting that they needed helpful fictions, possibly false beliefs that the ruling class didn't need to share, to ensure better management. He really didn't know squat about biological evolution, he only presumed that the idea would make it harder to govern society.)

Rich G. said...

Argon said...

"I worry that attributing 'purpose' and 'meaning' to divine fiat runs into the same problem as the case of divinely inspired morality and ethics (e.g. the Euthyphro dilemma)."

Thanks... I had not heard of this Dilemma, and I just started reading up on it. I guess I, too, do not see 'purpose' and 'meaning' as being imposed upon the creation by simple divine will, but being more a reflection of of the Creator's nature. But I will read and think more about this...

Rich G.

Cliff Martin said...

Argon,

Defining terms is always good. What does meaning mean? I understand it to be related to intent. "What did she mean by that?" is the same as asking, "What was her intention?" And, of course, we cannot have intention without an intender. So, perhaps my concept of meaning presupposes a mind (mind and meaning come from the same root).

Therefore, to say that meaning is established by fiat makes little sense to me. That would imply that the cosmos existed first, and meaning was assigned (by fiat) after the fact. I understand meaning to be related to the intended purpose of the cosmos, and thus the meaning comes before the creative process.

An inventer does invent objects, and then arbitrarily assign meaning to them. The meaning exists in his mind before he invents. How would that be subject to the Euthyphro dilemma? Is a golf club good at hitting golf balls merely because the manufacturer said it is?

I suppose that my definition begs the question. For there to be meaning in this cosmos (real meaning ... not just ones we happen to make up along the way) there must be one who created with intention and purpose. Without such an intender, we live in an utterly meaningless universe.

I suppose someone could, in ignorance, assign his own personal meaning to a golf club. He might say "This 9 iron is for trimming my lawn," or "this driver is for disciplining my dog" or "isn't this a fancy poker for my fireplace." Such notions might supply the user with a sense of meaning, but they would of course be bogus. The golf club has an actual extrinsic purpose, and its true meaning can only be found in striking golf balls.

And here is the rub: The skeptic will settle for any "golf club meaning" that suits his fancy. Only those who believe that such an object must have meaningful purpose will seek out the genuine intention of the golf club maker. Only the believer is likely to keep up the search until he finds the authentic meaning on a golf course.

Argon said...

Hi Cliff,
You write: "And here is the rub: The skeptic will settle for any "golf club meaning" that suits his fancy. Only those who believe that such an object must have meaningful purpose will seek out the genuine intention of the golf club maker. Only the believer is likely to keep up the search until he finds the authentic meaning on a golf course."

I disagree here. Why would a skeptic settle for any meaning that suits his fancy? A "skeptic" by definition will always question the choices made. On the flip side of your case, I suppose one could argue that a believer settles prematurely, mistakenly assuming certainty where none is possible or when he should continue looking.

Ideally, no one ceases to continually reflect on their assumptions and I'm not one to shortchange either the skeptic or the believer by assuming they aren't curious or willing to question their axioms. There is a lot of careful deliberative thought on this subject from both sides. Let's respect that.




Another comment:
Cliff: "Without such an intender, we live in an utterly meaningless universe."

Two problems, posed as questions:
1) And so? Take for example, the real possibility that you don't know the meaning of the universe even if there is one; that the directions you chose are actually false. Would you know the difference? Given that there are many different beliefs held by many different intelligent and honestly curious people, then surely many can't tell the difference between the 'right' meaning of the universe and a false one.


2) Does the universe having meaning imply that working to accomplish that meaning is necessarily in your best interest? What additional assumptions are necessary to co-align the meaning of the cosmos with your best interests? Think about this for there are many. Consider for example, a chicken sandwich you might have eaten recently: Perhaps it was God's will that the chicken was meant to die in order to nourish you, but was it really in the *chicken's* best interest to be killed? This harkens back to the Euthyphro dilemma. Please, give that topic a read and pull up other philosophical manuscripts on that subject. It's a fascinating, challenging debate.

Argon said...

Cliff, I forgot to address one of your questions (and Rich's too): "An inventer does invent objects, and then arbitrarily assign meaning to them. The meaning exists in his mind before he invents. How would that be subject to the Euthyphro dilemma? Is a golf club good at hitting golf balls merely because the manufacturer said it is?"


For you or I to have purpose in a utilitarian sense like a golf club is, I think, emotionally unsatisfying and sterile. There is a funny 'demovitational' poster put out by despair.com that reads: "It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others".

http://despair.com/mis24x30prin.html

I am approaching one facet of 'purposefulness' from the perspective of what imperatives having a divine purpose may imply. The problem is related in the sense of where purpose originates, whether purposefulness requires God's existence and whether one's interests and God's purpose necessarily align.

There are other, separate issues as well, but I had the Philosophical Disquisitions blog bookmarked and that site has related material.

Cliff Martin said...

Argon,

Good comments. You make me think!

Ideally, no one ceases to continually reflect on their assumptions

I agree. And I did indeed shortchange the genuine skeptic (a class in which I like to include myself) in implying they might settle for a life meaning without on-going examination and reflection. And as a “skeptical believer”, I reject certitude, and my own conclusions remain always tentative. But the key difference separating the search of the materialist from the God-seeker is the field of that search. The materialist will only look inside, presuming any meaning must be of his own invention. He may well, as you suggest, refine his life meaning. But he presumes that there is no ultimate transcendent purpose for the universe, and so will look for none. Whereas the God-seeker presumes that the universe is purposeful, intentional, and that there is a universal “meaning to life” to be discovered, and thus his search field will be broader.

You posed the question without offering an answer: does purposefulness require God's existence? It puts us back to the same conundrum. Sure, we can each develop a sense of purpose subjectively. But if such subjectively derived purpose is the only purpose available, when those purposes fail to align (as they surely will), they will merely illustrate the over all purposelessness of the cosmos. On the other hand, if the cosmos actually has an intention, one that we are left to discover, how could that be without a intentioner? So, do you have an answer? does purposefulness require God's existence?

Argon said...

Hello Cliff,
I've enjoyed our conversation too.

Cliff: "You posed the question without offering an answer: does purposefulness require God's existence? It puts us back to the same conundrum. Sure, we can each develop a sense of purpose subjectively. But if such subjectively derived purpose is the only purpose available, when those purposes fail to align (as they surely will), they will merely illustrate the over all purposelessness of the cosmos."

I not so sure they fail to align among us. Humans share a common biology and neuroanatomy. Within the human community, there seems to limits to our 'subjective range' (I'm search for the right word to describe the idea and failing...). It's no wonder that different cultures exhibit similar patterns of thought. That's a bit of a cop-out answer, admittedly, but it suggests why humans can feel the same way even if opinions about ultimate purposes differ. On the other hand, consider aliens from other parts of the galaxy: Aliens may feel completely different about purpose because well, they're alien :^)



"So, do you have an answer? does purposefulness require God's existence?"

Honestly, I've only got questions. But I suppose it's a start to understand I don't know the answers.

I am not sure we may ever be clever enough to know the answer in divine matters. The God of philosophy (i.e. a necessary being) is a pretty sterile and distant being and a personal God who like us is miles beyond what philosophy and logic can take us. I think 'purposefulness' minimally requires an agent which acts on things with intention. Humans fit this description as do some other animals. Thus things we do can be purposeful. But do we each have *a* purpose in the cosmological sense? I don't know. I'm not sure that anyone has found a reliable means of identifying and locating the source of transcendent imperatives. Many believe they have but can't demonstrate that theirs is not also a subjective opinion. It's definitely a subject area to behave humbly.

I think I'll go a little 'Zen' right now and consider 'unasking the question'. We're presuming that the term 'purpose' makes sense when applied in a cosmological context. Does it? What is the function of 'purpose'? Is it something we feel we require because of our emotional make-up? Is it a by-product of the way we perceive hierarchy, order and social relationships? As my ham radio elmer used to say: "The difference between theory and practice is that in theory, theory and practice are the same, but in practice they're not." Personally, I suspect things are confusing because we're actually trying to compare apples and oranges (e.g. emotional sensation associated with how we perceive events vs. philosophical metaphysics) and don't recognize it. I'm not sure we'll ever be sure of how to answer our questions. On a slightly related tangent, I think future research on mechanisms behind perception and cognition will reveal interesting insights in how we perceive the world and make sense of it. Whether the scientific results will resolve our metaphysical questions is unlikely but the discoveries may help us better frame the questions.

Cliff Martin said...

Well put, Argon.

Tom said...

"The difference between theory and practice is that in theory, theory and practice are the same, but in practice they're not."

I'll have to remember that one! Thanks!

Tom said...

Cliff,

Regarding your comments. As an evolutionary creationist, you acknowledge that evolution was capable of going from a self-replicating molecule to the image of God, right? (For the moment, let's forget about the next step -- sin). At its core, evolution has to be more about cooperation than dog-eat-dog. Complexification exists as patterns beget patterns -- single molecules become cells, cells become tissues in a body, the body is part of a population, etc. For these complex systems to arise, there had to be cooperation at multiple levels more than the selfish predator-prey model that is usually presented and thought about with evolution. While I can't put a number to it, my point is that evolution, by definition, makes systems more complex, which is ultimately a building process. A destructive process is ultimately meaningless because it bleeds itself dry.

With respect to pain, this means a complex system's pain may be more acute and dynamic than a lower animal. (Does a snail really experience the same kind of pain humans do when you poor salt on it?)

Now, to go Biblical for a moment, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil -- It seems we became as Gods when we could know good and evil, when we recognized this pain. If you say that humans were the only ones to bear this attribute, and humans are the only spiritual animals out there able to make a purposeful life, then evolution may be just the ticket to incorporate pain into a theodicy.

That being said, you claim, "A materialist must, in the end, say all suffering is meaningless.

The claim "in the end" is a bit dramatic. For all intents and purposes, if its 5000 years from now or a billion, they are both the same to me. For all my strivings, there really isn't any telling how my great, great grandkids will be spending their days. Whether it is a direct product of evolution or not, we tend to not dwell too much into thinking about the future. That is not to say that we should live a hedonistic existence and deplete the world of a lot of its resources. I'm just saying that this notion of eternity does not really come into anyone's practice, theists or not.

In your view, you get an eternity, but claim with my view there is an end. If there is an end, then it is all meaningless, right? But how do you know there is an end? What if there isn't? What is so wrong about continuing to evolve?

Cliff Martin said...

Tom,

But how do you know there is an end? What if there isn't? What is so wrong about continuing to evolve?

Life is based on biology which is based on chemistry which is based on physics and physics tells us there is an end, either the slow freeze out, occurring some number of trillions of years from now, or the big crunch occurring 100 billion years or so from now. Entropy is that "destructive process [which] is ultimately meaningless because it bleeds itself dry." Evolution, both cosmic and biological, is a relatively short-lived phenomenon on the front end of the cosmic timeline. The materialist accepts this reality that, yes, "in the end" all is vanity in the words of Koheleth.

But Koheleth occasionally rises above his own nihilistic despair, claiming that eternity has been set upon our hearts by the Creator, a phenomenon I acknowledge and embrace. I actually do think about it a lot. It does make a difference in my view of life, and personal purpose. It provides a much larger story to live within, supplying context which in turn offers the hope of meaning for suffering, and the possibility of redemption for all injustices.

I asked BrownPanther, and now I ask you:

"... if I did not believe that there will be justice for those who knew only abuse and misuse here; if I did not believe that the lives of children slaughtered in the holocaust somehow matter, that their deaths are ennobled in some eternal way; if I actually thought that all suffering is utterly meaningless, and will never be redeemed; I can assure you, I would join Nietzsche on the precipice of the abyss. I would need to run hard to escape a nihilistic outlook. How do you do it?!?"

Tom said...

The materialist accepts this reality that, yes, "in the end" all is vanity.

True enough, I believe there is ultimately an end. However, I think the end of the world is much, much further away than most Christians believe. Many Christians see Jesus coming again any day now, primarily because of the way humans are killing the planet -- he has to come before we destroy ourselves. I also feel a race against time with respect to humanity, but imagine life on the planet will proceed without humans. I hope my children can grow up in a pleasant world and that we can learn to cohabit it with each other and the environment. It would be really unfortunate for us to start to glean an understanding of how we and the universe operates only to lose that through our own selfishness and inability to understand and communicate with each other. Part of my meaning is trying to do what I can to ensure humanity realizes satisfaction and longevity.

Now, why would God bless humans with the knowledge that we are going to die and its related notion that we may die forever? Is it a way to realize how much we need him to escape this destiny? In which case, is there really a free choice?

If you think nihilism follows the logical course to depression and suicide, I think you can also make the logical argument that we need to save all creatures from this meaningless existence because it is just a waste of energy. Should I not kill my dog (as graciously as possible, of course), not have babies, and hand out cyanide popsicles to children?

Of course, this trash talk is wrong, but partly how I stave off nihilism is in the answer. I recognize life, just this mundane thing that I do, is worth it.

============

Justice. Now, that's a topic worth several posts.

So, what does redemption in this context even mean? If justice is the method to try and set things back to their purposeful course by rewarding victims and punishing the lawless, then I can see where a theist would want a heaven and hell. The heaven gives victims like holocaust babies a second chance and hell doles out a punishment. (I can't remember where you stand with the idea of hell, but if these victims get a free pass to a heaven of eternal bliss, and perpetrators get eternal torment, then I can't say that sounds like justice either.) The presumption of heaven and hell, in my view, cloud our ability to form our own judicial systems. If all will be taken care of in the afterlife, then there is no need to demand justice today.

As you noted, this last century was humanity's worst on record, so you may argue that our judicial systems fail. They are indeed imperfect, but they are part of a dynamic process. We find ourselves living in a changing world and people fall victim to all sorts of things -- even things where the best of intentions backfire (like communism). So, we throw money at oil spills, at traffic lights, at cleaner water and we implement and adjust our policies toward what we think will make the world a better place. We even throw money into corruption because it protects us in the short term.

Point is, life is dynamic and it is full of injustices. We have to do what we can to make it a better place so that other animals and human generations can survive more happily. The meaning of life, of course, is to give life meaning. We do this by coming to grips with our biology and the earthly environment we find ourselves in. It's a struggle, but would it be meaningful if it weren't?

Cliff Martin said...

Tom,

This is so hard to do on-line. I wish you and I could sit down for a few hours over some coffee and talk face to face.

Many, if not all of your responses assume I accept traditional Christian thinking. (e.g. Jesus is coming back soon; justice involves “setting things back to their purposeful course”; justice means rewards and punishment in heaven or hell; future justice precludes the need for present, temporal justice. etc.) Tom, I do not believe any of those statements. My understanding of God’s intent for the “restitution of all things” is much larger, far more grace-filled, far more wise and meaningful than our simplistic approach to rewards and punishment.

I do not believe in after-life rewards and punishments at all. Rather, our future destiny (including things like our developed capacity for joy; the usually misunderstood concept of “glory”; the life-numbing consequences of poor choices, etc.) grows naturally out of the choices we make, beginning in this life, but perhaps not limited to this life. Our future state is a natural extension of our lives here, the everyday choices we make.

If I tried to explain further in a comment thread, I would be misunderstood again. I need to continue to write posts.

As for your position ... it still seems to me that you survive, and hope to thrive, only by ignoring or repressing the ultimate reality that all will be lost, that there is no final redemption of the cosmos, that human life is a mere blip on the radar screen, and we muddle through making the best of it. I’m sure that even lifers in prison can find some way to make their lives meaningful. But if “making the best of it” is all there is, and I reflect on that reality, I would be driven to madness. I think the only way you avoid that is by not thinking about it. Am I wrong?

Mike said...

Pretty much during my 30’s, I was either an atheist for some years, or an agnostic for other years. One thing I was sure of though was that Christianity was not the way to go. I was convinced of this because of the standard atheistic reasons (if there are standard reasons). Anyway, in my early 40’s, I became a Christian. Like Cliff, I’m not your typical Christian but I am a follower of Jesus.

To be brief, during my atheistic years, I didn’t have a bleak outlook. So concerning the original post, I think that if one atheist can survive without a meaningful existence, then an atheistic society might be able to also.

Good to have you back, Cliff.

Mike

Cliff Martin said...

Mike,

Could be. I don't have a definite opinion on the O.P. But it seems to me that for one to be an atheist without what you call a "bleak outlook", one either does not think deeply, or he represseses his thoughts re. such things as the immense suffering of innocents, the destiny of the human race, untimely death, etc. Anyway, when I try to imagine what it would be like for me to abandon all hope of ultimate justice, cosmic resurrection, final restitution, etc., I think I would be overwhelmed with despair.

Mike said...

Cliff, a few thoughts come to mind about atheists without a “bleak outlook.’ I guess if an atheist behaved totally selfishly or even cruelly, he might feel “ok” about there not being any justice or punishment or whatever. Of course there is what you said about “ultimate justice, cosmic resurrection, final restitution, etc.” and that may “bother” some atheists. But for cruel ones and those with no conscience, I guess it would not matter much, except for maybe the cosmic resurrection part. But I’ve heard some atheists claim they don’t want to live forever. So I think there is a whole mixed bag here concerning atheists.

For me, if I remember correctly, when I was first an atheist, I don’t think I was very worried about thinking there was no God, ultimate justice, or life after death. I mean, sure I thought about it sometimes, but I think I just had to deal with it. If there is no meaning to anything and no life after death, then we all die anyway. Even if many suffer terribly and are treated unjustly, we would still die and then there would be nothing so it would have no long term effect. Eventually we wouldn’t even be around to think about it or to suffer anymore. As a side note, I would think that non-existent would be preferred to eternal suffering! What I mean by that is that if there is the God that many Christians believe in, then the Christians would be “saved” from eternal torment but everyone else would eventually be sent to hell to suffer eternally. So I can’t quite see how “meaningless lives in a meaningless universe” is worse than “meaning” which ends with most people being in eternal torment. I’m not saying you believe that. Frankly, I don’t know if you believe that. But as you know a great many Christians do believe that.

Anyway, I guess I wasn’t satisfied with the “meaningless” aspect of atheism because I started to wonder if maybe after we die we go to a better “place” and that it had nothing to do with God. Maybe it was just a natural progression like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly or something like that. After all, we don’t really know how everything works! I’m guessing there are other atheists who believe the same kind of thing.

Then I became a Christian, but that’s another story!

Mike

Cliff Martin said...

Mike,

When I talk about matters of justice and redemption, I have less mind how a person thinks about getting his just deserts; I'm thinking more about justice on behalf of those lives that are horribly abused, misused, cut short, etc. A very high percentage of human lives cry out for some kind of redemption and justice.

You see, it is one thing for an atheist, with his affluent, comfortable lifestyle, to claim that life has meaning because he constructed his own personal purpose, and he lives that out to the best of his ability. It is another thing for him to say that human existence (the bulk of which exists under the weight of crushing poverty, sickness, suffering, starvation, infant mortality, sorrow, abuse, or horrors unimaginable) has meaning.

Any worldview that does not take these things into account, or attempt to make sense of them, is not worth much in my book. I look for a reality in which even the least life has value and meaning. I hope for such a reality. Sometimes I think that there must be such a reality. And such a reality would depend upon resurrection such as Jesus exemplified, and taught us to anticipate. It would necessitate a reality parallel to or subsequent to the one we experience. It would require that what the Bible teaches about suffering is true!

When an atheist abandons belief in an Almighty, he also abandons any hope that human existence can be ultimately meaningful. I contend that unless he shields his thoughts from these horrible realities of human existence, he will be driven to despairing nihilism.

The irony here is that many (most?) atheists have come to their atheism precisely because of the theodicy question raised by human suffering. And yet such suffering is no less a problem for their worldview to work through!

Tom said...

I think the only way you avoid that is by not thinking about it. Am I wrong?

I think about it a great deal, but I don't perseverate on the topic. I try to live in the moment as much as I can, too. While "ultimate meaning" is perhaps the grandest question of all time, I can imagine the endless discussion of theodicy also driving one to despair! Take any sports game and you can reduce it to meaninglessness. Yet, we do it, and simply playing the game, living in the moment, is what makes it meaningful.

The atheist living in his comfortable lifestyle can still see broad human suffering and recognize each person should have an enjoyable life as much as is possible. Humans' ability to empathize with each other is keen. The Golden Rule is really common sense.

And yet such suffering is no less a problem for [the atheists'] worldview to work through!

Indeed, recognition of the state of the world and the human condition are issues we should all be concerned with. The only real difference between theists and atheists is that the theist assumes supernatural causes and remedies. Since the Bible's answers on the issue of suffering are unsatisfying, I don't see how the assumption of an unknowable ultimate meaning is any less empty or qualitatively different than the atheist's stance that there is no ultimate meaning.

I'm going to listen to John Lennon's Imagine now.

Rich G. said...

Tom:

"My life's meanderings might not amount to all that, but I hope that I can at least help pave the way for my kids to have even a better earthly experience than I've had. This is generally every parent's hope. That guiding principle has lead us from bacteria to the emotional animals we are today. Who knows where the system will take us in another billion years!"
"The atheist living in his comfortable lifestyle can still see broad human suffering and recognize each person should have an enjoyable life as much as is possible. Humans' ability to empathize with each other is keen. The Golden Rule is really common sense."

I'm glad that you have such a capacity for optimism. But I think you are glossing over a very important question (and its implied corollaries) What constitutes "better" or even "enjoyable" and why is that even an important objective?

You want your offspring to have it better than you, but at whose expense? None of us can survive but to the detriment of of many of our surrounding organisms and creatures. Our forms developed over the millennia through the struggle to survive, so is it better to force our offspring to continue the struggle (and thereby become stronger) or do we make it easier for them to survive with weakness? In the long run which is 'better'?

Is 'better' even something about which there can be unambiguous agreement?

Do we serve evolution by creating new environmental niches for new organisms to develop or do we try to preserve a static environmental 'snapshot' of the current conditions in this dynamic, ever-changing world? And who's to decide? Especially when, in the long run, there is no moral difference, for we know that it will all be burned up. The universe doesn't know we are here, nor will it remember anything we did.

So we can keep playing games (knowing they are meaningless) just to keep ourselves occupied, or we can search for an external reality while we have the chance. I believe that there must be one, for mankind seems to have something that we do not see anywhere else: the ability to conceive of and frame the question "is there meaning?".

Rich G.

Tom said...

What constitutes "better" or even "enjoyable" and why is that even an important objective? You want your offspring to have it better than you, but at whose expense? Is 'better' even something about which there can be unambiguous agreement?

Make no doubt about it, everything is subjective. My definition of "better" may come at the environment's or another person's expense. Heck, it may even come at my children's expense.

None of us can survive but to the detriment of of many of our surrounding organisms and creatures.

Wrong. See one of my previous comments. Evolution, the construction of patterns on patterns, despite its consumption, is perpetually building deeper experiences.

Our forms developed over the millennia through the struggle to survive, so is it better to force our offspring to continue the struggle (and thereby become stronger) or do we make it easier for them to survive with weakness? In the long run which is 'better'?

My subjective view is that those things that tend to survive are the ones that are generalized as much as possible. You go too deep down one path and it is likely to be a dead end. My hope is that we can use our energy, empathy, and our communication skills to make for a decent baseline for human experience. Generally speaking, I think humans have it better today than they ever have. Just because I don't imagine it going on forever and ever and ever and ever and ever, even a few billion years seems like an awfully long time to me. I don't see it as playing games to try and make the experiences of those that come after me better -- however I define it. But just because you imagine an absolute definition of 'better' does not mean to me that you have it.

Cliff Martin said...

those things that tend to survive are the ones that are generalized as much as possible.

Interesting side comment, which may pertain to what you are saying here, Tom. If not, its just interesting. I read once an article about what constitutes beauty, particularly what makes a beautiful woman's face. The study showed that if you took 100 women's faces, and merged them into one, you would end up with a beautiful face. That is, beautiful women are merely average women, with features that are right down the middle of the bell curve of variation.

Rich G. said...

Tom:

I think you misunderstood what I wrote:

"None of us can survive but to the detriment of of many of our surrounding organisms and creatures.

Wrong. See one of my previous comments. Evolution, the construction of patterns on patterns, despite its consumption, is perpetually building deeper experiences.
"

My point is that none of us can carve out a habitable space without negatively impacting the survival of other creatures around us. We plow land for farms, killing innumerable worms and insects, we cut trees, mine coal and metals, drill for oil, pave roads, and a whole host of other activities that remove habitat and food sources from, or actively kill, our fellow-creatures. Who is to tell if this is right or wrong, and to what degree?

BrownPanther said...

Cliff,
Sorry I haven't had time to respond since last week.
1) I wish I had the vocabulary and classical philosophical background to communicate properly. Haven't had a chance to read all the posts yet either.
2) I didn't mean to imply you held a "pie in the sky," arbitrary reward-based theology. I was only responding to your citing a lack of permanence to everything and probably didn't understand your point the first time.
3) Again, I don't think permanence is relevant to meaning. But now it sounds like you're saying that it's not permanence that's key, but some sort of conclusion that justifies the process. You ask me how I can live as a materialist, aware of the volume of suffering throughout history, without becoming nihilistic. By the definition of nihilism you provide, I suppose I do approach a nihilistic point of view. It's true, I don't see any OBJECTIVE meaning in the universe, but that, to me, is irrelevant to our personal sense of meaning. While it's a useful intellectual exercise to consider what it may be like, we don't view existence "from a distance" like God and Bette Midler. We exist from a perspective as humble components of the universe. I think it's a mark of that humility to accept a meaning to our lives that doesn't require the vastness of the universe to, essentially, revolve around us.
As to the overwhelming amount of suffering in the world, I will have to think quite a bit more about it. I don't know exactly how to answer that now except that I believe I deal with it the same way a faithful person or any other human deals with it. Maybe I'm being cynical, but I simply don't believe we have the capacity to be overwhelmed by pain on such an abstract scale as presented by all the children who were tortured and murdered throughout the American Indian holocausts. Again, maybe I'm being cynical, but I don't believe anyone who says they feel a similar crushing pain for all the children starving to death on another continent as they do by seeing their own child crying because they got picked on at school. I guess I don't get emotionally overwhelmed by the intellectual and abstract idea of pain on a large scale. I don't think we can. We don't have the biological capacity to feel for someone outside of our personal sphere in the same way. The less we can relate to them, the less we can feel. We can intellectually and abstractly relate someone else's experience to pain that we've felt, but that's limited to our own experience and removed by its abstraction. Maybe I'm a cold bastard. I really only think that suffering presents a special problem if there's intent ascribed to existence. Suffering simply is. I don't like it, but here it is, as indifferent and out of my control as any other component in the universe. I deal with it like everything else outside of my control: by adapting to it however I can. We combat it where we can, accept it when we can't stop it. As of yet, sure it can get me emotional, but reality hasn't presented me with anything I can't absorb. If it does, curl up and die. It's the same for everyone.

BrownPanther said...

But I'm curious, so I have something to compare my view to and articulate better, how does your idea of justice help you deal with such suffering, keep you from curling up in despair? What end, what possible, theoretical conclusion justifies the torture and death of a single Indian child (forget the history of all suffering) at the hands of European invaders? What possible utopia or perfect justice can be built on the suffering of single person? If such a just end can't be conceived of, but instead trusted in, how does it help, right now, to deal with the suffering around you? How can something so abstract and inconceivable provide anything? Isn't that like trying to fit a hypercube into a round hole.
I look forward to thinking about this and hearing from you more, but I imagine, at the end of this late-night rambling, that if we could lay it on the table, you and I cope in the exact same way, and it has nothing to do with an intellectual, abstract sense of justice, just human nature.

Cliff Martin said...

BrownPanther,

Thank you for your reasoned response.

First, some clarification. I am not here thinking about how we cope emotionally with travesties, cruel and overwhelming injustices, and the immense suffering of innocents, both historically and in the present. I agree with you, we haven’t the emotional capacity to even grasp this suffering, let alone process it all. And you are correct: in a world full of suffering, I suspect that you and I cope with this reality, and fall asleep at night, in pretty much the same way.

Rather, I am contrasting the value and significance which our two worldviews attach to suffering. You declare that it has precisely none. No value. No meaning. It just is, you say. Your nihilism in the face of these realities is inevitable, given your nihilism with respect to ultimate purpose.

On the other hand, my theistic hope offers me the marked possibility that no suffering goes unnoticed, that the suffering of faith, and the suffering of innocents accomplishes something. And that something elevates the potential value and meaning of every life, even that of the 2 month old slain in the massacre of an American native village. And when I speak of my theistic “hope”, I do not use that word to describe some fleeting dream or wish. Rather, I have in mind an expectation solidly constructed upon the teachings, and the example of Jesus, the enlightened understandings about suffering communicated by the Jewish people, and by the apostles, Paul and Peter. I am thinking about the actual way in which, even on our temporal plane, suffering has often been purposeful, effectual, valuable toward some meaningful end. MLK, Jr., e.g., who famously said “We will wear you down by our capacity to suffer.” And he did! He was tapping into the profound power of the intentional suffering of nonresistance, a principle taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and echoed by the early Jews and Paul: Evil can be overcome with goodness, including the goodness of nonresistance together with its consequent and imperative suffering.

In this regard, the N.T. teaches that the sufferings of Jesus actuate, in some way, the Kingdom of God order. But it also teaches that his sufferings were insufficient to accomplish all that suffering must accomplish. It also teaches that we have the potential (and sometimes the choice) to “suffer with Christ”, to add to his sufferings in a way that completes what his suffering starts.

Finally, the Book of Revelation implies that such suffering is compiling, that it is moving toward some fixed quota, if you will. And if that is the case, then no innocent suffering is in vain.

We can see in history how the sufferings of innocents has redirected history, how that suffering can and does (at times) disarm evil, remove its sting. This is the genius of nonresistance. We see it in Ghandi, King, and Jesus. If nonresistant suffering has the capacity to disarm and overcome evil in our time-bound sphere, why should we not suspect that something very analogous is happening (and has been happening) on a grand, cosmic scale?

BrownPanther said...

When I say suffering has no meaning, I only mean in the cosmic, purely objective, transcendent sense. Of course I agree that intentional suffering for a purpose is meaningful. The sacrifices we all make for others aren't meaningless to the recipients of the benefit or the sufferers themselves. Suffering can produce all kinds of positive consequences and, to be sure, those are to be appreciated. Why would we assume that there is a transcendent, analogous system going on? And how would that add anything to our experience? What's the practical difference between suffering "with Christ" and just suffering for the benefit of others? How does assuming intent in the cosmos add to the meaning of any individual's suffering? How does it add to the meaning of the actions of Mohandas Ghandi and his followers? I personally don't see a difference. His actions and their product were good and meaningful regardless of the possible intent on a cosmic scale, a scale from which we are perceptually barred.
I too believe that something elevates the value of every human life, I just don't need that value to come from anywhere but a human source. You'd be hard-pressed to find a single life that matters to not one other single human life. That we matter to each other is value enough. That's very much the way we're built as social creatures. We need only examine the hardware. Yes, there will be a terminal generation, but as long as there are two people who's lives matter to each other, human existence will have sufficient meaning.
As far as unintentional innocent human suffering being in vain, well, it happens. We very much choose what the meaning of suffering is to be. I've seen suffering and I choose to get the most perspective and inspiration from it as I can but I don't have to. Many don't and just become bitter. In any case, how would the meaning that we derive from suffering of any kind, on a practical level, be bolstered by some abstract, undefinable purpose to it? The assumption of intent in the universe raises all kinds of problems (of which you are well aware), but I still don't see how it helps on a practical level.
Again, this isn't the isolated view of a few atheists who are being dishonest with themselves about the meaning in their lives, it's evident in the majority of cultures throughout history. It sounds like, from your view, any worldview that doesn't include some kind of justifying conclusion would face the same problems concerning meaning, but it doesn't seem that this is the case. Mythologies that entail a final justice to everything are a rarity. How has most of our species dealt with suffering without Christian influences? Have they all been in denial? By not going mad, have they all just been dishonest with themselves, waiting for Abrahamic doctrine to free them from a pointless existence?

BrownPanther said...

I wish you'd come into town for coffee sometime. This'd be easier and more fun in person. Or maybe when I get my car soon you'll let me know when you have some free time (I know, what's that, right?) and I can come out there.

Rich G. said...

Cliff:

Upon reflecting on this, I see an aspect that wasn't evident earlier: That of a goal or objective.

I don't think either a society or an individual member can long survive without some sense of purpose, whether imposed externally or self-realized. Of course, I think there is a difference between a proximate and an ultimate goal - and most people seem to be satisfied with the short-term, apparently not wanting to be bothered by long-term (or eternal?) ramifications. And, in my opinion, that is the problem with the atheist's view of "meaning" - it is only an effective theory in the short term. Their society must keep inventing new goals in order to keep people's minds from thinking about ultimate questions and realizing that for all they are setting their energies to accomplish, it is ultimately to no purpose except to kill time.

When an individual thinks he has nothing to live for, he loses hope. I wouldn't expect a community to behave differently, either.

Rich G.

Cliff Martin said...

BrownPanther,

So much to respond to! Yeah, we need some face time to hammer this out. I will respond to just a couple of your questions.

Why would we assume that there is a transcendent, analogous system going on?

I would not assume that; I merely suggested that we might suspect that. I presented the efficacy of suffering in overcoming evil not as evidence that something analogous must be happening at the cosmic level, but rather as illustrative of the principle. There are other reasons that compel me to believe that suffering plays a role in the ultimate battle against evil and death (which I have presented elsewhere). Examples like King and Ghandi and Jesus show us how the principle of non-resistant suffering actually works.

How has most of our species dealt with suffering without Christian influences? Have they all been in denial?

No, they have not been in denial. Cultures and people groups have almost universally developed philosophical responses to pervasive suffering. Karma, samsara, and nirvana are all ways in which the Hindus and Buddhists seek to make sense of suffering in the larger, cosmic sense. Animists make sense of suffering, too. They view suffering simplistically, as direct punishment from the gods. So suffering, and the fear of it, leads them to religious sacrifices and enforces their perceived sense of animist morality. Paganism speaks of the role of suffering in restoring harmony in the world, in the spiritual order. These are all attempts to make sense of suffering on a larger, philosophical scale. I still contend that when you say “well, it happens” without exploring what meaning might underlie it, you are denying that any such meaning could exist. And from my perspective, you are sweeping it under the rug in ways none of the great religions of the world do.

How is your view anything more than what Rich calls "killing time"? I agree with you that the way in which a materialist deals with suffering in the short teerm is not much different from how a Christian would deal with it. Finding meaning in human relationships works for the near term. We all do that. What is lacking in you view (from my perspective) is any kind of binding philosophical outlook that can make suffering fit into ultimate reality. But, of course, your view completely denies ultimate reality.

Tom said...

What is the intent of eternity if not to continually pass time?

If you demand ultimate purpose, then everything must have purpose. If everything has purpose, then everything is directed. If everything is directed, then there is no free will. If there is no free will, then there is no purpose.

Cliff Martin said...

"If everything has purpose, then everything is directed."

Please explain.

Tom said...

It seems to me the notion of ultimate purpose indicates an optimal path of experience. If it exists, and other sub-optimal purposes exist, but they are ultimately dead ends, then the universe is fine-tuned to eventually put creatures on this optimal course. In this sense, it is a deterministic system, so one has to ask, "What's the point?" This question has two parts really: 1) what's the point of allowing/permitting/experiencing these sub-optimal strategies and 2) what's the point in following the optimal course?

If there is an ultimate plan, then I don't see how you get beyond the depressing view of Calvinism.

Cliff Martin said...

Tom,

You need to use a little more imagination! I am totally comfortable with a non-directed universe. Calvinism bores me as much as it does you. I believe we are actually participating in an unfolding drama in which we play a vital roll. Let me explain ...

1) I do not believe that God micromanages the universe to ensure a desired outcome. In fact, I believe he structured into the physics of the universe an unpredictability that even he does not (can not??) circumvent, as I suggest in this post on quantum physics.

2) I agree with those who teach that, far from steering the course of the cosmos, God may not even know details of the future.

3) I believe that God has such confidence in the superior power of love over hatred, life over death, and goodness over evil, that he takes no risk in turning the cosmos loose. He knows that in the end, these forces will win out. He annihilates evil not by the exercise of brute force, but through a path of non-resistance, allowing evil to naturally succumb to the greater power of goodness. This path of non-resistance involves suffering, both for him, and for the creation.

4) How long this process takes is unknown, perhaps even unknown in the mind of God. God calls us to cooperate with his purposes, places a great deal of responsibility upon his created beings. The New Testament teaches that we, by our actions can actually speed up the process. So, the ball is in our court! Faith is everything.

Tom said...

Cliff,

You seem to be making contradictory statements:

God may not even know details of the future.

and

I believe that God has such confidence in the superior power of love over hatred, life over death, and goodness over evil, that he takes no risk in turning the cosmos loose.

If there is no risk, I don't understand his arduous process of proving the point.

Once evil is annihilated, what then?

Cliff Martin said...

Tom,

Those statements do not contradict. I tried to be clear in stating that God may know the general flow of the future, without 1) directing it, and 2) even knowing the details.

If there is no risk, I don't understand his arduous process of proving the point.

Neither do I. But I have surmised that this was the best way, and perhaps the only way to accomplish his ends. When Jesus teaches us how to overcome evil, he does not tell us to overpower it with greater force. He tells us to lay our lives down, to offer the other cheek, to pray for those who mistreat us, to go the extra mile, and to love our enemy. If that is the best (only?) way to overcome evil in the microcosm of our lives, why should we expect that in the macrocosm of this creation it would be different? I would not characterize this process as being one of "proving a point". I believe it is a real battle, one which the forces of evil may believe they can win because they underestimate the power of love.

Once evil is annihilated, what then?

I don’t know. Evil, fight, resistance, struggle: these are all so intertwined with our sense of reality that life without them is incomprehensible. But I suspect the coming restored cosmos will surpass our wildest imaginings.

Rich G. said...

Tom:

"If you demand ultimate purpose, then everything must have purpose. If everything has purpose, then everything is directed. If everything is directed, then there is no free will. If there is no free will, then there is no purpose."

I was thinking about this, and I thought about a farmer, hay, mice and barn cats. The farmer has a purpose in having the cats there: to keep the mice in check. The cats, individually, operate by free will without being controlled by the farmer, yet collectively, they fulfill the farmer's purpose for having them: They protect his feed hay.

I know this is a simple illustration, but I think it can demonstrate how free will can operate within an overarching purpose.

Rich G.

BrownPanther said...

Cliff,
I'll save most of the nitty gritty for a face-to-face, but I wanted to comment on just a couple details from your last response.
1) I disagree that those supernatural traditions that you cite are "attempts to make sense of suffering on a larger, philosophical scale." I think they're more often a way to manufacture a sense of control over suffering on a practical, immediate scale. I think that's an important distinction. Many of them don't at all address a justification for suffering (which seems, to me, to be the crux of your idea of meaning in suffering) so much as they describe the mechanism by which suffering operates in order to create the impression that, by understanding the mechanism, we can manipulate it. Of course, these have all been developed without any knowledge of neurology, broader biology, advanced physics, etc.
2) "How is your view anything more than what Rich calls killing time'?" Among other things, one easy difference is that I'm enjoying time. That's much different. It's a concept of the present that isn't dependent on an infinitely variable future or claims to knowledge we're not capable of obtaining.
3) "What is lacking in you view (from my perspective) is any kind of binding philosophical outlook that can make suffering fit into ultimate reality. But, of course, your view completely denies ultimate reality."
I don't deny ultimate reality and I don't think I've ever said that. I can see how you might think that though. I definitely think that there's an ultimate reality, but you're probably closer to right than wrong with your assumption in that I don't think that we're capable of ascending to any kind of state pure or removed enough to perceive reality that objectively. Again, we can suppose what that independent, purely objective view might be like, which is a fun intellectual exercise, but we're ultimately limited by our very flawed, biologically-based perceptions as products within the universe, not outsiders looking in.
Also, in what way does suffering not fit into ultimate reality in my view? In order to fit something in, there first has to be an assumption that something's out of place. My brand of materialism would define any element's place by where it is, not where I think it should be, particularly when it's outside of my sphere of influence. It's only with an assumption of a providential universe that suffering needs to be gerrymandered into fitting a prescribed narrative.

BrownPanther said...

Oh, I almost forgot: "I still contend that when you say 'well, it happens' without exploring what meaning might underlie it, you are denying that any such meaning could exist. And from my perspective, you are sweeping it under the rug in ways none of the great religions of the world do."
Setting aside what constitutes a great religion and whether or not they do face this question of meaning in suffering the way you suggest, I don't think that by accepting that which I cannot change, I'm simply "sweeping it under the rug," as though I found it boring or challenging and didn't want to deal with it. I could just as easily examine it, find it irrelevant to meaning in my life, and decide to pay it little attention. I no more sweep it under the rug than you might sweep away the "problem" of how Scientology's thetans causing sadness fits into your "big picture" philosophy. I've examined it and found it irrelevant.

Cliff Martin said...

Hi BrownPanther,

A few responses ...
I think you are splitting hairs when you say that the cultural and religious responses to suffering e.g. karma, divine chastisement, etc. are not attempts to make sense of suffering. Yes, people may be led to manipulate the system (as they understand it) to their benefit. And yes, in my opinion, these approaches fall far short of the philosophical approach to meaning and teleology that I prefer. But your original point was that most cultures and peoples, much like Materialists, posit no large scale meaning for suffering. That is plainly untrue, imo. The hindu, the animist, the buddhist, the shintoist, native Americans, even taoists, they all find some way for suffering to fit into their worldview, to make sense, to have purpose, to be necessary, etc. Materialists just shrug their shoulders and sing Que Sera. Materialists (in your own words) find the suffering of other organisms and people “irrelevant to meaning” in their lives, and so “pay it little attention.”

Again, I will contend that any worldview which refuses to take into account the enormity of suffering, and the huge role it has played (and continues to play) in the life of our species is both shallow and facile. And (no offense) quite provincial and self-centered. I cannot fathom how someone of your philosophical depth and social consciousness can blithely choose to enjoy your personal success in avoiding suffering while you choose to pay little attention to the sufferings of others.

[I do not mean to imply that you lack compassion, or are unresponsive to social needs and personal suffering of people. I know you to be otherwise. I am rather scrutinizing what I consider a glaring weakness in the philosophical base of your life.]

Cliff Martin said...

And if your response is that a Materialist need not fit suffering into its worldview, because there is no overriding narrative to be concerned with, then the problem is not with you, but with Materialism in general. If Materialism can really write off suffering as being irrelevant because there is no narrative to existence to worry about, then Materialism is not only shallow, but boring. (imho)

Rich G. said...

Cliff & Brown:

In reading over your exchanges, I get the impression that, for the materialist, there is no philosophical underpinning for compassion or altruism. That these are generally accepted as admirable and desirable traits in a civilized society is evident (except for the few Ayn Rand devotees, who see it as a weakness). It's not just working suffering into a consistent worldview, but it must include a recognition of our response ti suffering - whether to exercise compassion and altruism, or to just "let the chips fall where they may".

Tom said...

In reading over your exchanges, I get the impression that, for the materialist, there is no philosophical underpinning for compassion or altruism.

For this materialist, I say that all behavior and experience has freely evolved. Compassion, altruism, and suffering are natural phenomenon. You might even call this epiphenomenalism, in the sense that happiness and fulfillment are sort of secondary to the evolutionary goal of simply propagating the species. I can paint sex itself as having a particular core mechanical and dull role too, but it is obvious that "secondary" roles can induce dynamic experiences that have several meanings across immediate and long-lasting temporal scales.

I really don't understand the stance that theistic evolutionists can claim that evolution is fully capable of getting molecules to the intellectual (and emotional?) image of God, but that its not enough.

Cliff Martin said...

Tom,

I really don't understand the stance that theistic evolutionists can claim that evolution is fully capable of getting molecules to the intellectual (and emotional?) image of God, but that its not enough.

Maybe a bit of a rabbit trail here, but this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, especially since Ginger went away. I realize that things like memory, intellect, even emotion all likely have fully material explanations; this would suggest that when she died, all of these aspects of physicality went away with her last breath. Materialists are okay with this; but of course, I do not want it to be true, and my faith, my sense of what it means to be human, would suggest that these things live on in some form. I have drawn a computer based analogy. Our computers have “physical” memory, stored on the hard drive. But they also have RAM memory, active and “alive” memory, not yet stored, existing ethereally, immaterially. There is usually some overlap between RAM and Hard Drive memory. But if the RAM capacity matched the Hard Drive, we could theoretically have a complete mirroring of the two.

The analogy leaves room for a “soul” which mirrors the physical aspects of memory, volition, emotion, cognition, etc. These physical mental and emotional phenomena would merely be the mechanism through which the soul interfaces with the material world. But all of those aspects could, at the same time, be a part of the growing, developing soul or spirit of the person.

I know ... to the materialist this probably sounds like a lot of unnecessary hocus-pocus. But for one who just lost his wife, hopes for an eventual reuniting, but who also understands something of the current state of evolutionary cognitive neuroscience, these thoughts have brought comfort. Or to put it another way: the current state of evolutionary science in this area (with which I have no quarrel) has not removed my hope in resurrection.

Mosser said...

as a simple man i'd agree. maybe it's because i can't logically create a proof against it. but i deeply suspect (without a bunch of big words) that the reason why so many of my generation are constantly on some drug or another, withdrawn, lack empathy and a patient respect for others, etc... is because they feel life is meaningless. many i have talked to in-depth who see their world as meaningless, also see their world as less bright, hopeful, rewarding or even enduring. (come on people, why do so many youth adore the newest depressed, confused, crying band out there?? because they relate to the hopelessness of the message and find a sort of unity or peace in relating. when the band becomes mainstream enough due to gobs of cash, all the previously 'touched' feel cheated that their artists sold out to the meaningless world they once cussed at.) even in the face of hard Nature and lots of critics, we Need our Faith in a Meaningful Creator, our families and a lot of selfless love to live a healthy life; despite it going cross-grain with the lack of ethics in natural evolution.