Well, I never got back to the blog last night; I apologize! I appreciate the continued discussion below the atheist post, though, and want to expand on that topic a little.
To start with, I think I need to be a bit more specific about a couple of points:
Point One: My questions in the earlier blog post are aimed primarily at atheists (not agnostics who come from a different place philosophically) and specifically at those atheists who would hold the following (in some form or other; my wording may not be perfect) as a kind of first principle: Nothing which cannot be empirically verified can be said to have actual existence. For the sake of this blog post, let's call it the Principle of Empirical Verifiability (PEV) for short.
Point Two: The question to me is not whether atheists, even those who adhere to the PEV, are able to be good or can choose to be good (or altruistic, or to find meaning, joy, and value in life, etc.). The question is whether this is a rational extension of the ideas of PEV atheism, an irrational departure from the ideas of PEV atheism, or something else altogether.
Point Three: What follows is an extended metaphor by which I hope to illustrate more clearly what I mean. As all metaphors/analogies, it is not perfect--but I think employing it will better able to make my overall meaning clear:
The Prison: a fable for atheists
Suppose that you awaken one day to find yourself in a completely unfamiliar place, surrounded by mostly unfamiliar people: the handful closest to you seem slightly, if oddly, familiar, but you can't explain why. In fact, you can't explain anything at all, because it takes you five years or so to grasp the spoken language of the people amongst whom you find yourself; it takes another ten to fifteen years to add the written language, knowledge of the basic principles of the place you live, and an understanding of your responsibilities as a fully-fledged member of this mysterious community.
But one of the things you have clearly learned by the time you have been a resident for fifteen or twenty years is this: you are in a prison, a huge, highly-advanced prison which has created many illusions of freedom for its residents, but a prison nonetheless. And there are three pretty terrible things about this prison: no one is ever released; no one ever escapes; and everyone, sooner or later, is led away by prison guards and executed, at which point they no longer exist in any form, in any reality, at all.
The truly frightening thing about the death sentences is that they are carried out seemingly at random; new residents who can't even speak the language yet are carted, screaming, away; residents who have barely begun to get their bearings are dragged off as routinely as those who have lived in the prison a long time; and residents who have grown old and feeble wait helplessly for their turn, which they know is coming closer and closer--because no one lives in the prison for more than 122 years, and the vast majority are sentenced to die sometime before they have been there a century. Some residents, regardless of age, go calmly with the cadre of prison guards when they are summoned; others fight and go limp and otherwise try to impede their impending deaths--but no difference is made either way. They die; they disappear; they cease to be.
Other than that, though, it's not a bad place to live. You can, if you are lucky enough to have the means, go to interesting schools, get advanced degrees, fill your head with knowledge; you can work at interesting jobs and earn prison credit which can be used to buy houses, transportation, an affluent and comfortable lifestyle; you can marry and have children--who will be subject to the same eventual death sentence and eternal oblivion as you, but if you are lucky, not for a long time, not until after you, yourself, have been executed. The operative phrase, though, is "if you are lucky," because many in the prison toil at manual labor, barely receive any education, drift from homelessness to hovel-living, walk everywhere or take the inadequate prison transportation (dirty, risky, inconvenient) to get to work or school, watch their own children taken away to be killed, suffer from illness and disease, and otherwise endure misery and hardship. While some people end up in this gritty, bare-bones existence by their own poor choices, most seem to be there as randomly as most of the affluent people seem to be where they are.
But in the end, it doesn't really matter if you have lived an interesting, successful life or a drudge-filled existence of toil and suffering: those guards show up one day, and nothing you were or did will mean much to your fellow prisoners, most of whom will simply be glad they're not you--yet--when you get dragged away.
Now suppose that you are living in this place and trying to make sense of it all. Here I have to simplify, because the point of this exercise of the imagination is to look at all of this as if you are a PEV atheist; bear with me if you are not. But you are a PEV atheist. You believe in the prison because its existence is empirically verifiable; you do not believe in any world outside the prison, any freedom, or any life after one is dragged away and put to death because those things are not empirically verifiable. Sure, there are people, called "believers" who think that the prison was never meant to be a prison, that human beings made it a prison, that the builder has been trying to show people the way out for centuries to the extent of sending his son to tell people about the world outside the prison, freedom, and the eternal life available beyond it; but they are clearly illogical dreamers whose visions don't belong to science, and you pride yourself on placing science at the head of all prison knowledge.
So you have to decide how you can best order your very finite, extremely limited existence when you know that your death and total annihilation will come at any moment. You have a choice: will you live as though your knowledge of this place, your awareness of the relative shortness of your lifespan and uncertainty of its ending date, and your rejection of non-empirical beliefs actually matters, or will you allow yourself to buy into the kind of fairy-tales that other atheists seem to be comfortable with, to wit: that you will probably live at least the average 78 years or so and thus not need to pay attention to your impending obliteration, that work, study, etc. contain some sort of transcendent meaning that makes them valuable pursuits, that joy, happiness, etc. are not just tricks of the mind engineered by the prison itself to keep one docile and content, that altruism and a pattern of good actions is noble and worthwhile, and a dozen other equally absurd things?
If you reject all non-empirical beliefs as the absurdities they are, then you face the reality: life is solitary, nasty, brutish, and short, and then you simply stop being. Following all the rules like a good little prisoner might get you a decent job, a decent relationship, perhaps a relatively non-unhappy family, etc.--but that's not much of an exchange for existential angst and the certainty of destruction, is it? It would be more logically consistent with your beliefs to look out for number one, to lie, cheat, and steal if necessary in order to make your own life as comfortable and pleasure-filled as possible, and to treat other people like the insignificant insects they are (since they can never be you, and since you yourself obviously aren't worth much in this prison, anyway). Within the prison, you see people--politicians, celebrities, sports stars, the famous and the infamous--living lives of excess, and if virtue is somehow its own reward and wealth and consumption a sort of poison, there is, at least, no empirical evidence that this is the case.
At this point, you wonder: do some PEV atheists accept the non-empirical beliefs they seem to live by because this is easier than dealing with the reality? Do they accept them because they are too weak-minded to recognize the inherent absurdity of holding the PEV while still believing in non-empirical things? Do they accept them because they lack the strength, the courage, or the intelligence to lie, cheat and steal and get away with it all successfully? Do they retain the vestiges of religious upbringing such that they fail to notice that platitudes about altruism and the goodness of (prison) life are really rather silly and incoherent? Or is there something else going on?
And you, as a true PEV atheist, shrug, plagiarize your thesis, lie on your resume, cheat on your taxes and your partner, and taunt the "believers" until the group of prison guards appear to take you away forever. But at least, you mutter as you are dragged away, at least I was consistent.
Now, I know that some will object that life *is* good and meaningful, that one doesn't need religion to believe that, that being good to people is better than being bad, etc. My point, though is: can you prove it? Or are these simply comfortable fictions some tell themselves to avoid ever dealing with the logical ramifications of what they believe?
I see a lot of assertions going on about the goodness and meaning of life, etc., in the comment box below the first post. What I don't see is any attempt to prove empirically that those assertions aren't as airy-fairy as any religion's belief system. And, frankly, if the choice is: be a pretty awful person but a consistent atheist, be a good person but an inconsistent atheist, or try to be a good person in accord with one's religious faith, religion still seems like the best deal to me--even aside from my inevitable reflections concerning my own Catholic faith and what that means to me.