Sep 18, 2013

An Evolutionary Vision of Death

[From A FB Discussion]

"Without warning, David was visited by an exact vision of death: a long hole in the ground, no wider than your body, down which you were drawn while the white faces recede. You try to reach them but your arms are pinned. Shovels pour dirt in your face. There you will be forever, in an upright position, blind and silent, and in time no one will remember you, and you will never be called. As strata of rock shift, your fingers elongate, and your teeth are distended sideways in a great underground grimace indistinguishable from a strip of chalk. And the earth tumbles on, and the sun expires, an unaltering darkness reigns where once there were stars."--John Updike, "Pigeon Feathers," as cited by James Sire in _The Universe Next Door_, p. 59.

Friend 1--JS: Well, that's a happy thought right before lunch.

RBR: If you're an evolutionist, you'll have no recourse but to admit that your lunch is merely a survival activity with no transcendental value. On the other hand, if you are a Christian, you may be certain that your lunch does in fact have significance. Recall Paul, "Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1Co 10:31 NAU).

Friend 2--MC: Advocatus diaboli: But surely only a Christian would be so concerned about his sandwich having transcendental value. Besides, survival activities can be quite pleasurable--and hence, meaningful enough for those who are "without God in the world."

Friend 1--JS: Wow. I thought it was just a sub sandwich. Who would have thought? (Therefore I am)

RBR: [Response to Friend 2]: Christians are not alone in holding that the most mundane actions have value. In fact, my physicalist friends often bid me have a “good day,” take up social, judicial, diplomatic, environmental, etc. causes that seem to suggest a conviction that their cause celeb has inherent value—real value. However, a worldview that denies transcendental values has no foundation for these kinds of actions; their (physicalists) worldviews cannot provide the philosophical justification for their causes. This means my physicalist friend may claim to be comfortable with his philosophical despair, but he cannot and does not wish to live in such a way. He does not want me to live in this way either, especially if what seems like a pleasurable survival act to me threatens his survival and/or happiness. In short, his worldview cannot provide a framework within which his actions and perspectives make sense. If he denies that eating the sandwich has value, he’s going to have stipulate the grounds on which anything has transcendental value, or give up ethics as purely conventional. If this happens, he falls into solipsism. If solipsism wins the day, we're all in big trouble and the nihilist wins [though the nihilist WV cannot provide an account of reality that makes sense].

Friend 2--MC:  I don't want to press this far. But I think that many atheists/materialists could affirm that social causes, etc. have value in the sense that certain conditions are more or less conducive to human flourishing. Many atheists/materialists are not moral nihilists, but acknowledge that objective value supervenes on natural states of affairs--even though this is not what you would call a "transcendental" value.

I think you can get more traction by talking about moral obligation. Moral obligation (i.e., objective, overriding requirements that do not depend on human social activity

RBR: [Response to friend 2] Thanks for the stimulating conversation--something rare on Facebook.  I'll ask a couple of questions/make a couple of points, and then give you the last word, if you'd like to add something. 1.) There is no consensus among atheists that human flourishing *ought* to be a goal (and if it was, to what standard could they appeal?) Consider: Ethics deal with how people *ought* to behave, morality deals with how people *actually do* behave. I would agree that fortunately, atheists/materialists are not typically moral nihilists. In this regard, they do good (formally so) in spite of their principle of autonomy. I would argue, though, that their WV's logically reduce/terminate in moral nihilism b/c they can't produce a standard for oughtness. 2.) As far as moral obligations go, who determines the morality? Who/what obligates any human to act in any way? The state? Society? Something else? Remember, in postmodernism, laws are merely attempts at powerplays and are the attempt(s) of one metanarrative to oppress another metanarrative. Michael Foucault for example holds that the greatest good is an individual's freedom to maximize pleasure. For Foucault, "society constitutes a conspiracy to stifle one's own longings for self-expression" with the result that he "agonizes profoundly over the question of whether rape should be regulated by penal justice." As Ronald Beiner goes on to summarize, for Foucault, "law = repression; decriminalization = freedom" (cfr. Ronald Beiner, "Foucault's Hyper-liberalism," Critical Review, Summer 1995, pp. 349-70 and or James Sire, UND, p. 227

Friend 2--MC [Response to RBR]: Sorry my previous message got cut off somehow.
I think your arguments work well with atheists like Bertrand Russell who forthrightly deny the reality of any moral realities at all. And probably for existentialists, too.
What I meant to say earlier was that moral obligations (and deontological features of the world generally, including also moral permission and moral prohibition) are harder for a materialist to explain than moral values or virtues (i.e., axiological or aretaic features of the world). As you point out, social agreement or social convention is not adequate to ground moral obligations because moral obligations are not generally contingent on social agreement. Hence, many atheist will simply claim that there are no such things as moral obligations. But that seems, to me at least, to be false. We experience ourselves as being morally obligated, permitted, and forbidden to do various things. I take it that these experiences are veridical.

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