Thursday, October 27, 2011

Secularism and its Discontents (Pt. I)

Writer James Woods gives voice, in an interesting essay in the New Yorker, to the haunting sense of loss which grips many people in our secular age:
I have a friend, an analytic philosopher and convinced atheist, who told me that she sometimes wakes in the middle of the night, anxiously turning over a series of ultimate questions: “How can it be that this world is the result of an accidental big bang? How could there be no design, no metaphysical purpose? Can it be that every life—beginning with my own, my husband’s, my child’s, and spreading outward—is cosmically irrelevant?” In the current intellectual climate, atheists are not supposed to have such thoughts. We are locked into our rival certainties—religiosity on one side, secularism on the other—and to confess to weakness on this order is like a registered Democrat wondering if she is really a Republican, or vice versa.
These are good questions Woods' friend asks herself in the dead of the night. George Levine sets out to answer them in a book he's edited and titled, perhaps improbably, The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now.

According to Woods, "Levine explains that the book’s aim is to explore the idea that secularism is a positive, not a negative, condition, not a denial of the world of spirit and of religion, but an affirmation of the world we’re living in now; that building our world on a foundation of the secular is essential to our contemporary well-being; and that such a world is capable of bringing us to the condition of ‘fullness’ that religion has always promised."

It's very hard to see this as anything more than whistling past the graveyard. Thinkers like Richard Dawkins are closer to the truth, I think, when they insist that: "The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference."

But it's not just Dawkins who concludes that life is meaningless and that there's no purpose to the universe. Similar thoughts have been expressed by dozens of atheistic scientists, philosophers, novelists, and others who have reflected on the human predicament throughout the twentieth and twenty first centuries.

Consider this passage from Nobel-winning scientist Steven Weinberg: "[T]he worldview of science is rather chilling. [We find no] point to life laid out for us in nature, no objective basis for our moral principles, no correspondence between what we think is the moral law and the laws of nature...[W]e live on a knife-edge, between wishful thinking on one hand and, on the other, despair."

Or this from Somerset Maugham: "If death ends all ... I must ask myself what am I here for....Now the answer is plain but so unpalatable that most will not face it. There is no meaning for life and [thus] life has no meaning."

Woods goes on to talk about how one of the contributors to Levine's book handles the problem of trying to ground ethics in a godless world:
Many people, for instance, believe that morality is a deliverance of God, and that without God there is no morality—that in a secular world “everything is permitted.” You can hear this on Fox News; it is behind the drive to have the Ten Commandments displayed in courtrooms. But philosophers like Philip Kitcher remember what Socrates tells Euthyphro, who supposed that the good could be defined by what the gods had willed: if what the gods will is based on some other criterion of goodness, divine will isn’t what makes something good; but if goodness is simply determined by divine will there’s no way for us to assess that judgment.

In other words, if you believe that God ordains morality—constitutes it through his will—you still have to decide where God gets morality from. If you are inclined to reply, “Well, God is goodness; He invents it,” you threaten to turn morality into God’s plaything, and you deprive yourself of any capacity to judge that morality.
A couple things might be said about this. First, even if Kitcher is correct that Socrates' argument in The Euthyphro makes morality either independent of God or the product of God's arbitrary will, at least if there is a God there is a ground of moral duty. If there is no God then it's not that morality still exists on its own, with no need of God to give it warrant, it's that there simply cannot be any moral obligation to do anything at all. In a world without God there's no objective right or wrong, there are just feelings about right and wrong.

Atheist philosopher Richard Rorty saw this clearly when he observed that for the secular man there's no answer to the question, "Why not be cruel?" and Jeffrey Dahmer took his atheistic assumptions to their logical conclusion when he asked, "If it all happens naturalistically, what's the need for God? Can't I set my own rules? Who owns me? I own myself."

Secondly, I doubt very much, as I argue here, that the dilemma Socrates poses to Euthyphro is as formidable as Kitcher makes it out to be. Moreover, what of it if morality is indeed God's "plaything"? Isn't the entire universe, if God created it, His plaything? I don't understand why a morality inscribed by God on human hearts would be a worse thing than no morality at all just because it flows from the nature of the God who created the cosmos.

More thoughts on Woods' article tomorrow.

Should We Make the Rich Poorer?

Libertarian law professor Richard Epstein was interviewed recently on PBS in response to the news that income inequality has grown over the last few years. Epstein defends that inequality with arguments that are as cogent as they should be obvious.

Watch Does U.S. Economic Inequality Have a Good Side? on PBS.

The left seems indifferent to the power of Epstein's deposition. They often seem to care only that some people have more of the world's goods than do others, and, since they believe that to be an unjust state of affairs, they demand that the rich have their excess taken from them and given to people who have little. Lincoln's caution that Epstein quotes is apposite, however. We can't make the poor richer by making the rich poorer, even though that's precisely what the left thinks can be, and should be, done.

I confess to being personally disgusted at the huge bonuses given to Wall Street financiers by their shareholders, but though I think it contemptibly ostentatious and offensive it neither harms others nor is it economically unsound. To legislate against it, as the left wishes to do, puts them in the awkward position of advocating the imposition of their moral vision upon others, which is the very thing they've adamantly argued for fifty years has no place in a free, democratic society.

HT:Hot Air