Wednesday, August 9, 2017

A Purposeless Universe

Joseph P. Carter is a doctoral student in ancient Greek philosophy at the University of Georgia and a materialist who believes that matter and energy is all there is. On the materialist view there's nothing that cannot be reduced to material stuff - no immaterial mind, no soul and, usually, no God.

Carter writes about human purpose from a materialist perspective at the NYT's The Stone, and his conclusions, though somewhat subtly stated, are pretty bleak. Here are some excerpts which will help illustrate the gravamen of his argument:
Purpose is a universal human need. Without it, we feel bereft of meaning and happiness....

But, where does purpose come from? What is it? For over two millenniums, discerning our purpose in the universe has been a primary task of philosophers....

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle tells us that our purpose is happiness or eudaemonia, “well-spiritedness.” Happiness is an ordered and prudent life.

I’m certainly no Aristotelian. Not because I reject happiness. Rather, as a materialist, I think there’s nothing intrinsic about the goals and purposes we seek to achieve it. Modern science explicitly jettisons this sort of teleological thinking from our knowledge of the universe. From particle physics to cosmology, we see that the universe operates well without purpose....
What follows from this, whether Carter intends it or not, is that whatever means we employ to achieve happiness are justified if they enable us to successfully attain it.

In other words, on materialism there are no intrinsically right or wrong means, only those that work and those that don't. If it brings happiness someone to rape, pillage and murder such behaviors aren't wrong because the universe knows nothing about value judgments.
Just as the temperature of the coffee and air equalizes, the Earth, our solar system, galaxies and even supermassive black holes will break down to the quantum level, where everything cools to a uniform state.... Eventually everything ends in heat death....

What’s the purpose in that, though?

There isn’t one. At least not fundamentally.... [T]he universe as we understand it tells us nothing about the goal or meaning of existence, let alone our own. In the grand scheme of things, you and I are enormously insignificant.
But, Carter stresses, we're not completely insignificant. We can invent pretend purposes and meaning that occupy and divert our attention enough to enable us to stave off nihilism and existential despair.

We can be important to each other, he insists, we can do things that give us the incentive to get out of bed in the morning, we can even believe there's real purpose to our lives even though we know there isn't because evolutionary benefits accrue to those who make themselves believe it.

This is a depressing recitation, but it's really all that materialism can offer. A materialist can either accept that his life is nothing more than a "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing", or he can reject materialism. What he can't do is remain a materialist and pretend that somehow life matters.

Jean Paul Sartre observed that "Life ceases to have any meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal." Or, to put the same thought differently, unless what we do matters forever it doesn't really matter at all.

Carter, as one would expect, disagrees with this assessment:
An indifferent universe also offers us a powerful and compelling case for living justly and contentedly because it allows us to anchor our attention here. It teaches us that this life matters and that we alone are responsible for it. Love, friendship and forgiveness are for our benefit. Oppression, war and conflict are self-inflicted.
This seems to me to be a case of whistling past the graveyard. What an indifferent universe does is impress upon us the fact, contrary to Carter's assertion, that there is no compelling case for living justly if living unjustly confers upon us the pleasures and other desiderata of life that we seek. It tells us that we are just dust in the wind and nothing we do will last or matter ultimately. It tells us that love and the rest are merely chemical reactions in our brains and that though they may benefit some people, others may benefit just as much from oppression, war and conflict.

Atheist materialist Richard Dawkins famously wrote that the universe exhibits no design, no purpose, no evil and no good. Just blind pitiless indifference. In such a universe right and wrong, good and bad, are entirely subjective. What's right and good for one person may be wrong and bad for another.
When we ask what’s the purpose of the recent gassing of Syrian children in the Idlib Province or the torture and killings of Chechnyan homosexual men, we ought not simply look to God or the universe for explanations but to ourselves, to the entrenched mythologies that drive such actions — then reject them when the institutions they inform amount to acts of horror.
Notice Carter doesn't say we should judge these acts to be evil. On the materialist's view there is no genuine moral evil. Carter avers instead that we can "reject" them, but why, on materialism, should we reject these acts if they bring us happiness? Why is it wrong for men to treat other men cruelly if they believe it advances their well-being and flourishing? It's hard to see how a materialist would answer that question.

He concludes his article with these words:
One day I will die. So will you. [Everything in the universe] will decay ... as the fundamental particles we’re made of return to the inert state in which everything began.
Perhaps so, but if that's true then nothing we do on this tiny speck of a planet in the extraordinarily brief moment of time we spend here really matters.

Materialism offers no hope, no meaning, no basis for moral action, no reason for enduring the pain and suffering of life. To insist otherwise, as Carter does, is to indulge in make-believe.