Saturday, May 7, 2005

Emoting About Our Feelings

No Left Turns tips us to the meditations of Mr. David Velleman at Left 2 Right who offers a particularly lucid illustration of the existential problem which atheism poses to its votaries. He approaches the problem with this prelude:

I am especially troubled by the phrase "people of faith and moral conviction," which expresses the ever proliferating fallacy that moral seriousness, of the sort that is desirable in public servants, depends on religious belief. I suspect that one of the sharpest divisions among voters in the last election was between those who read elaborately flaunted religiosity as a sign of moral seriousness and those who read it instead as humbug.

Perhaps I wasn't tuned into the right news sources last Fall, but I don't remember anyone running for major office who indulged in "elaborately flaunted religiosity". Maybe Mr. Velleman considers it "elaborately flaunted religiosity" simply to acknowledge that one is a Christian because in the circles in which he travels, we may surmise, that's an admission which no one would dream of making, nor have occasion to.

It's a quirky thing about the times in which we live that complete strangers can tell us the most intimate details about their sexual preferences, they can inscribe their predilections across their t-shirts even, and we're supposed to take it all in stride like true sophisticates. But let someone happen to mention that he believes in God and is a Christian, and he's accused of elaborately flaunting his religiosity, a breach of manners so egregious that it causes the true sophisticates like Mr. Velleman to shake their heads in disgust and disapproval.

Mr. Velleman then zeroes in on the main point:

I spend a fair proportion of my working hours trying to show how moral imperatives are grounded in reason, but I take this to be a possibly endless task whose results thus far are inadequate to the profundity of the values at stake. At the end of each day, there remains a gap between what I can demonstrate and what I believe, a gap that I expect to bridged by reason in the long run but that must in the meantime be bridged by faith.

Mr. Velleman here puts his finger directly on the sore spot, presses hard, and even rubs it around a bit. His problem is that the project which engages his energies is quite an impossible task. Reason cannot provide a ground for moral values. Reason cannot even provide a ground for trusting our reason. Any argument which seeks to establish the trustworthiness of reason, after all, must presuppose the truth of the very thing it's trying to establish.

Mr. Velleman has been unsuccessful in arriving at a rational basis for his moral sentiments precisely because there is no purely rational basis for any morality except, perhaps, egoism. Reason can offer no answer to the question of why I shouldn't hurt others if doing so benefits me and if I can get away with it. Indeed, reason must actually condone such behavior. It inevitably leads to an ethic of might makes right. Any other outcome to his ethical inquiries can be attained only through one of Mr. Velleman's non-rational leaps of faith.

I long ago stopped identifying myself as an agnostic precisely because the label seemed to me a sign of intellectual timidity about a question on which people should be willing to have an opinion. I now consider myself an atheist, not because I think that I have conclusive reason for denying the existence of a personal God, but because I take His nonexistence, as it were, on faith. My willingness to embrace this indemonstrable vision of the universe is of a piece, to my way of thinking, with my commitment to the incommensurable value of persons as ends in themselves, the value that underwrites my moral code.

In other words, he denies the existence of God not because God's non-existence is something for which he has a great deal of evidence, but because he simply doesn't want the world to be the kind of place where a God might be lurking. His atheism, he would have us believe, is consonant with his high view of the value of persons. This claim must have an odd sound to the multitudes of victims of the sundry state atheisms which plagued the twentieth century, but never mind. The really odd thing about Mr. Velleman's last sentence is the complete arbitrariness of his decision to value human beings and the artificiality of the nexus by which he relates it to atheism.

If Mr. Velleman wishes to value persons that's fine, but if his atheism is correct, anyone who chose to treat persons cruelly instead of kindly would not be making a wrong choice, just a different one. There is simply no basis in atheism for his choice to treat people kindly. It's a decision he makes purely on the basis of his subjective inclinations and preferences which could as easily have been otherwise and which in other people are indeed otherwise.

Here's Mr. Velleman's predicament, indeed the predicament of most of his atheist colleagues: They want to hold on to morality while at the same time dispensing with the only thing which gives morality any meaning, the transcendent, omniscient, omnibenevolent Creator of the universe. If there is no such being then all of Mr. Velleman's moralizing is nothing more than emoting about his feelings. His talk of moral values may be interesting from a psychological point of view, but there's absolutely no reason why anyone should otherwise care about them. He can give his students no rational answer to the question of why he holds the values he does rather than some other.

One would think his reason would have shown him all this a long time ago.

Winners and Losers

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid called George Bush "a loser" yesterday. Well. One wonders what facts the senator calls upon to justify such a judgment. The 2000 election? The 2002 mid-term election? The 2004 election? The Afghanistan war? The Iraq war? In what, exactly, does Bush's "loser" status consist?

Perhaps part of the Democrats' slide into political senescence is due to the fact that they regard the above as instances of losing, and presumably consider Al Gore, John Kerry, and Saddam Hussein to be winners. Such an idiosyncratic view of success and failure might explain a lot about the Democratic party's fortunes of late.

If Senator Reid wants to see an example of a real "loser" all he needs do is observe what happens when he seeks to thwart the appointments of Bush's judicial nominees in a week or so. Unfortunately, given the Senator's perverse definitions, he will no doubt hail it as a smashing success for both his leadership and his party as one after another of Bush's nominees is confirmed on the senate floor.

A Heavy Toll

Arthur Chrenkoff has some before and after photos which illustrate the hazards of the terrorist life-style. The profession certainly appears to have taken a toll on these practitioners. The last pair of photos offers an especially vivid lesson to those who are considering the pros and cons of taking up the trade themselves.