Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Explaining Naturalism (Pt. I)

Alex Rosenberg is an atheistic naturalist [One who holds that nature is all there is, there is no supernature] who seeks in this essay to provide an overview of what it is that naturalists believe. He begins with this preface:
This is a précis of an argument that naturalism forces upon us a very disillusioned “take” on reality. It is one that most naturalists have sought to avoid, or at least qualify, reinterpret, or recast to avoid its harshest conclusions about the meaning of life, the nature of morality, the significance of our consciousness self-awareness, and the limits of human self-understanding.
Rosenberg wishes to draw "the full conclusion from a consistently atheistic position," as Sartre put it in describing existentialism. He will have none of the namby-pamby naturalism of those atheists, like Hitchens and Dawkins, who think they can reject God and still cling to belief that life is meaningful, that morality exists, and that truth can be known. Rosenberg's is a full-blooded naturalism that recognizes that all of those things are contingent upon the existence of a transcendent moral authority. Rosenberg's essay is a call to his fellow atheists to "man-up" and disabuse themselves of their comfortable illusions. No God, he avers, means no genuine meaning to life, no non-arbitrary morality, and no objective truth.

He divides his essay into eight topics, some of which will be addressed here at Viewpoint over the next couple of days. His first topic is headed, Why Leave Life’s Persistent Questions to Guy Noir? and is an explication of "scientism," a term that is in some disrepute but which Rosenberg wants to resuscitate. Here's an excerpt:
We all lie awake some nights asking questions about the universe, its meaning, our place in it, the meaning of life, and our lives, who we are, what we should do, as well as questions about god, free will, morality, mortality, the mind, emotions, love. These worries are a luxury compared to the ones most people on Earth address. But they are persistent. And yet they all have simple answers, ones we can pretty well read off from science....Scientism is my label for what any one who takes science seriously should believe, and scientistic is just an in-your face adjective for accepting science’s description of the nature of reality. You don’t have to be a scientist to be scientistic.
Scientism is the view that answers to all important questions can be provided through scientific investigation. This is because everything that exists is simply some combination of matter and energy [This is a view called materialism]. Since science investigates matter and energy it will eventually find the answers to all our questions. If one embraces naturalism [the belief that nature is all there is] then one is likely also to embrace scientism.
Rosenberg's claim here that science can answer all the important questions is surely wrong. It can't, for example, answer the question whether we have a soul, whether there's life after death, whether altruism is morally superior to selfishness, whether God exists, or a host of other very important matters about which human beings frequently wonder. At least, it can't give answers to those questions which are any more authoritative than are, say, the answers provided by religion or philosophy.

In the next topic, titled The Nature Of Reality? Just Ask Physics Rosenberg gives a pretty clear statement of what materialists believe about the world:
What is the world really like? It’s fermions and bosons [subatomic particles], and everything that can be made up of them, and nothing that can’t be made up of them. All the facts about fermions and bosons determine or “fix” all the other facts about reality and what exists in this universe or any other if ... there are other ones.
Ideas have consequences. If Rosenberg is right in saying that all that exists is matter, energy and the forces between them then several conclusions inevitably follow. Those conclusions are the topic of the remaining sections of his paper. We'll reflect upon them over the next several days.

The End of the Revolution?

Camille Paglia is as ardent an advocate of the sexual revolution as you're likely to find this side of the Playboy mansion so when she talks about the revolution's demise it catches one's eye. In the U.K. Sunday Times Paglia points to the exotic and beguiling Lady Gaga as exhibit A in her case that the social revolution in sexual mores which began after WWII has run its course. I'm not nearly as educated on these matters as is Ms Paglia, but nevertheless I'm not so sure that Western society could be so fortunate. In any event, here's a bit of what Paglia has to say about Ms Gaga:
Can it be that Gaga represents the exhausted end of the sexual revolution? In Gaga’s manic miming of persona after persona, over-conceptualised and claustrophobic, we may have reached the limit of an era…
Gaga has borrowed so heavily from Madonna (as in her latest video-Alejandro) that it must be asked, at what point does homage become theft? However, the main point is that the young Madonna was on fire. She was indeed the imperious Marlene Dietrich’s true heir. For Gaga, sex is mainly decor and surface; she’s like a laminated piece of ersatz rococo furniture. Alarmingly, Generation Gaga can’t tell the difference. Is it the death of sex? Perhaps the symbolic status that sex had for a century has gone kaput; that blazing trajectory is over…
Actually, I doubt it. That "blazing trajectory" which has left so much pain, heartbreak, and shattered lives in its wake won't be over until the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, recognize that sexual license causes far more hurt and suffering than it does pleasure. It has certainly been lethal to families and destructive of young lives, particularly those of women, especially minority women, and their children. Sexual liberation created a culture of death, represented by the abortion industry, fed an explosion in the rate of divorce, and an increase in the incidence of STDs. It could be argued that the only people who have really benefited from the revolution are pornographers, doctors, lawyers, therapists and abortionists.

Easy access to sexual gratification has led to the devaluation of marriage and a disinclination on the part of men to make a commitment to one woman for a lifetime. It has been something less than the blessing its proponents were promising back in those heady years of the late fifties and early sixties when women were encouraged to loosen their inhibitions and men were urged to act pretty much like a buck in rut.

Lady Gaga is not, in my opinion, a symptom of the revolution's demise so much as a symptom of it's weariness. When society wearies of sex, when sex begins to cloy, people don't lose interest. They turn instead to ever more bizarre, destructive, and violent means of gratification. If Ms Gaga's peculiar persona is a manifestation of sexual ennui then it's also a sign of even more perverse expressions of sex to come.

Lucky us.