Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Unkillable Myth

William and Mary anthropologist Barbara King recently reviewed a new book by Alistair McGrath titled The Big Question: Why We Can't Stop Talking About Science, Faith and God, and criticized him for perpetuating what she calls the "unkillable myth" to which theists cling. The "myth" she has in mind is the conviction among many thoughtful people, theists and atheists alike, actually, that unless there is a purpose to the cosmos in general there can be no ultimate meaning to individual human existences.

King, who is herself an atheist, writes:
Here, yet again, is the unkillable myth, the persistent blind spot about atheism that apparently no amount of explaining can make go away. No matter how lucidly atheists explain in books, essays and blog posts that, yes, life can and does for us have meaning without God, the tsunami of claims about atheists' arid existence rolls on and on.

Where does this persistent (is it also willful?) misunderstanding come from?
Well, to answer her question, it derives from several sources, I think, one of which is the writings of atheists themselves.

McGrath cites a couple of those atheist writings, and King quotes him, but she remains unpersuaded by the quotes. She says that just because there's no meaning to nature or the universe it's illogical to conclude that individual lives have no meaning. She posits two steps that theists take to arrive at this conclusion:
First is the understanding, emergent from evolutionary theory, that neither the universe as a whole, nor we humans within it, have evolved according to some plan of design. Cosmic evolution and human evolution unfold with no guiding hand or specific goals. Most atheists do accept this, I think.

Second is to embrace as a logical next step the idea that our own individual lives have no purpose or meaning. Do you know of any atheists who believe this? I don't.
Perhaps King doesn't read much atheist literature, but there are plenty of well-known atheist philosophers, novelists, and filmmakers who believe this. A partial list would include Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, Bertrand Russell, Hemmingway, Somerset Maugham, Woody Allen, and Jurgen Habermas.

To quote just one of these writers, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that "unless the point of life is to suffer, life has no point."

King adds:
Nor do I recognize the scientific communities of which I am a part — both online and offline — in McGrath's insistence that a "sense of cosmic pointlessness haunts many today, particularly within the scientific community."
But what about these famous words from Nobel Prize recipient Steven Weinberg?
...the worldview of science is rather chilling. Not only do we not find any 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 .... We even learn that the emotions that we most treasure, our love for our wives and husbands and children, are made possible by chemical processes in our brains that are what they are as a result of natural selection acting on chance mutations over millions of years. And yet we must not sink into nihilism or stifle our emotions. At our best we live on a knife-edge, between wishful thinking on one hand and, on the other, despair.
Or the insistence of the late Will Provine that,
There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death….There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will.
Or the words of another Nobel recipient Francis Crick:
‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: ‘You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.’
What do any of these brilliant scientists mean if not that man is insignificant and that his existence has no more point or purpose than that of an insect?

Space precludes quoting other scientists such as Sigmund Freud, Bernard Rensch, Richard Dawkins, and Stephen Hawking, inter alia.

King continues:
An anthropological perspective teaches us that we humans are a quintessentially meaning-making species. We create love and kindness (hate and violence, too), and also work that matters. We recognize and protect (or, too often, harm) our sense of connection to other animals, to plants and trees, to all of nature's landscapes. What are those acts if not ones of meaning and purpose?
There are a couple of things to be said about what she asserts in the previous paragraph. First, an illusion of meaningfulness is not the same thing as real meaningfulness, subjective meaning is not the same as objective meaning, and proximal meaning is not the same as ultimate meaning.

Anyone can insert meaning of the illusory, subjective, proximal kind into his or her life, but this is like an elderly lady in the rest home who finds great satisfaction in doing jigsaw puzzles all day, who experiences delight every time she inserts the right piece and is pleased when she finishes. Then she dismantles it all, puts it back in the box and begins the next one. The puzzles give her life meaning of a sort, but what she does doesn't really matter. It just allows her to stave off boredom.

If meaning is something we make up then meaning is merely a pretend fiction, like a child's imaginary friend. We may think our lives matter, but how could they if everything ultimately perishes? Unless what we do matters forever it doesn't really matter at all. To insist that life is meaningful even though we all hurtle toward extinction is just philosophical whistling past the graveyard.