Monday, August 1, 2011

Pollyanna atheism, Shakespeare, and existential horror

I hope for this to be my last post discussing new atheism for a while. What I have learned, so far, from the comments below this post and this one is that new atheism isn't so much a philosophy as a mishmash of personal thoughts, platitudes, and a sort of hybrid of materialistic secularism and the less-attractive parts of existentialism, such that the defining principle isn't so much along the order of "I think, therefore I am," and more like "I think my own experience of life is pretty good, and that's pretty much all the time I need to spend pondering the riddle of existence."

I think the old pagans would weep into their libations as they set afire the noble vessel bearing the body of a great hero into the glorified oblivion of the next world, frankly. However, I must admit that perhaps those new atheists I've so far been privileged to encounter are not a representative sample, and that perhaps some of the new atheists have spent some time and effort laying aside their instruments of observation and recording in order to ask the age-old questions like "Why are we here?" and "What is life?" and "Why is there pain and suffering?" and "What is the proper response to the existential horror of total non-existence which we believe is our only lasting destiny?" Because thus far, the answers to the first three questions seems to be: We are here because a big bang happened followed by the slow organization of cosmic dust into organic sentient material; life is what happens when organic sentient material progresses enough to make iPhones and play Angry Birds; and pain and suffering is mostly about other people but really it's just the natural decaying process that is going to affect anybody walking around in a meat suit--sure, it's awful, but whatever. And the answer to the last: crickets. Or, to be fair, the answer to the last: "Wow, you must be a really depressed person to ask questions like that. Don't you have an iPhone?"

[This is the part where the atheists all point out in painstaking detail that my paraphrase of their arguments thus far is not strictly accurate. I could say something about humor, but humor cannot be empirically proved to exist among new atheists. So I will just say: gosh, amazing, you're right, I'm not fair! Neither is the universe--but you seem more upset about my lack of fairness than the universe's loving plan for your total annihilation in 100-N years and counting. Since you are able to deal with the universe's lack of fairness by ignoring it, I'm sure you can figure out a bright and creative way to deal with mine.] :)

The part that frustrates me is that people from the dawn of human history have grappled with these questions, not finding them either frivolous or evidence of clinical depression. If life consists of a mixed bag of experiences for 100-N years followed by eternal oblivion, then what, exactly, is the point of life? To paste on an overlay of enjoyment of one's own good experiences? To steep oneself in pleasure? To sacrifice one's own self-interests in the service of others (and why, exactly, is this a smart choice given such a finite existence)? Is the path of a good life one of wine, women, and song--or of scientific exploration of the causes of alcoholism, an immersion in Gender Studies, and/or a career in the manufacture and sale of cell phone ringtones? Or does the answer depend so totally on personal preferences that there is, philosophically speaking, no such thing as a good life?

And if ancient people spent a lot of time pondering the meaning of life, how much more did they spend pondering the riddle of death. New Atheism seems to think that "Death is a natural termination of the processes of organic life," is all the answer anybody needs, and that anybody who wonders at all beyond that point is just a superstitious person with a need to be comforted by fairy-tales.

I can't help but contrast that attitude with the one Shakespeare created for his tragic hero Macbeth. Faced with the death of his wife and the mounting horror of his own predestined end, Macbeth's cry of existential horror is one that resonates through human experience:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

What does New Atheism say to this? So far, the answer seems to be that if Macbeth had avoided becoming a murdering sociopath, had been kinder to his wife, had found some meaning in his employment (and, ideally perhaps, had had the benefits of a modern education and an iPhone) he would never have groaned forth such miserably depressing words. The idea that Macbeth's words are true, especially for people who think there is no soul, no transcendent realities in our existence, no possibility of being more than funny organic matter which occasionally buys into the illusion that he or she matters, and no future beyond the obliteration of the grave and the slow decay of one's body--now devoid of the brain and consciousness, which was the only thing that had any meaning in the first place--into food for various invertebrates, does not seem to be commonly held or understood.

The New Atheists are less like Shakespearean heroes and more like Eleanor Porter's "Pollyanna." They are not heroically whistling past the graveyard or railing like Macbeth at the futility of life--they appear determined to think that life is quite a nice sort of thing so long as everybody gets along and shares their toys (and, ideally, their endowments for various scientific research--but not, of course, their iPhones). As to existential horror: well, science has come out with some nice drugs for addressing the depression issues of anyone who actually spends time pondering such grim stuff, which is, come to think of it, just one more way in which empiricism is better than all that old superstition about a life full of eternal meaning and consequence.

39 comments:

Anonymous said...

You know, Red, what you describe here is what can be said of almost any issue on the table these days: it all comes down to the cult of feeling and the cult of just being nice.

You're right. Those who have seriously studied these existential quandries and have studied philosphy in the truest, classical sense must be rolling their eyes and have a sense of anger about being upstaged by this "new atheism" that is based on self, rather than the real work of intellectual pursuit. I've recently read observations along these same lines, where classically-trained atheists (the ones who've done the real work and study) are extremely unappreciative of the "new atheists" who sound like a bunch of rambling idiots. Essentially, they claim that the "new atheists" are dismantling their tradition of well-thought out and academically articulated arguments for atheism.

In my own opinion, which I know people are gonna have a field day with, to me it all boils down less to true atheism based on observation of the evidence, and more on the aversion atheists have in having to submit to some kind of moral code that doesn't fit with their vision of free love, irresponsible sex, and the quest for the never-ending orgasm.

Jeremy said...

Another great post Red Cardigan!

This is just the problem. The atheists of yore held Socrates and other philosophers as a heroes because they spared no effort and avoided no risks in the search for Truth. Atheists nowadays don't even seem interested in Truth.

Slightly off topic: In case anyone is still interested, just before Red Cardigan posted this new on, I had written a long comment in the comment box for the earlier post (the prison one). I tried to be much clearer in my use of terms this time, and I am really interested in hearing a response to my question at the end.

John E. said...

"What is the proper response to the existential horror of total non-existence which we believe is our only lasting destiny?"

What's so horrible about total non-existence?

John E. said...

To paraphrase Samuel Clemens, prior to 1967, I totally did not exist at all and it did not bother me in the least.

I don't see why the likelihood that I won't exist a hundred years from now should bother me either.

Anonymous said...

John E,

Non-existence or death? Be specific.

The notion that death doesn't scare atheists or doesn't bother them is ridiculous. (Of course we'll never know, despite their protestations, since we're never able to be the proverbial fly on the wall as they lie on their deathbed. So it's very convenient to make these assertions, since no one can verify them at the moment of truth.)

But either way - non-exixtence or death - are you volunteering to have your existence end in order to just walk the walk, and not talk the talk?

Anyway, your argument about "What's so bad about non-existence" perfectly confirms what Red is asserting: Your belief that it's not so bad is based on nothing but feelings, perception, and "intellectual masturbation," so to speak. Like a kid taunting back with, "Am not!"

Where is actual philosophy to back it up? Quoting Mark Twain really doesn't cut it.

Angela C. said...

Personally, what's horrible about total non-existence is that it renders everything I've experienced absolutely meaningless. That's the horror of oblivion -- every sorrow, pain, anxiety, fear that I have lived through (and tried to offer up as an act of redemptive suffering) was for nothing. I do not know how an atheist can be so nonchalant about going through all this pointless, random misery. It would make me waver between fury and despair.

Erin, thank you for these extremely interesting posts.

John E. said...

Neither commenter above has answered why oblivion is bad.

They have only expressed that they don't like it.

Angela says, "I do not know how an atheist can be so nonchalant about going through all this pointless, random misery."

Well Angela, I'm sorry your life has been one of pointless random misery - mine has been pretty good, on the whole.

John E. said...

But either way - non-exixtence or death - are you volunteering to have your existence end in order to just walk the walk, and not talk the talk?

My dear anon - I don't have to volunteer for that, it is as sure to come as night following the day.

John E. said...

Anyway, your argument about "What's so bad about non-existence" perfectly confirms what Red is asserting: Your belief that it's not so bad is based on nothing but feelings, perception, and "intellectual masturbation," so to speak. Like a kid taunting back with, "Am not!"

What is your belief that non-existence is bad based on if not your feelings about the matter?

Red Cardigan said...

John E., saying you won't care about ceasing to exist because it doesn't bother you that you didn't exist before 1967 is a little like saying that because no one had a computer before 1967 you wouldn't much care if your computer was destroyed and you were somehow forbidden ever to have another. One hopes your existence would be worth a little more to you than your computer, though.

But you are illustrating quite well the "Pollyanna atheism" concept--except you call yourself an agnostic. I think of agnostics as people who think God might exist, though, and you don't ever seem to express that belief.

Anonymous said...

You know, Red, there are people here who will argue with you about anything for the simple fact that a conservative Christian has put forth the argument. If a Buddhist or Jew had a blog arguing against gay marriage or atheism, they wouldn't spend all their time there getting into it with you. Guaranteed.

Anyway - John E - religious belief has pretty much never (until in recent history) been based upon "feelings." Ditto for any other kind of belief. There has always been a stated basis for these beliefs, not just "I feel like it."

Instincts are one thing, feelings are another. The intellectually responsible and respectable thing to do is to investigate inner instincts and find a rationale to back them up - experience, facts, consequences, the experiences of others, written defenses, etc.

Can't do that with feelings, they are often irrational. As are your "arguments," which as Red is saying with this blog post, can't be backed up with anything but self-indulgent masturabatory feelings.

Taking this full circle - I feel like homosexuality is wrong. And gay marriage. I feel discrimination is fine. Don't ask me to explain why: I just feel this way and it works for me.

Anonymous said...

I feel like I don't like gays. Or gay marriage. I feel like discriminating against them is OK. I just feel that way. It works for me.

John E. said...

I think of agnostics as people who think God might exist, though, and you don't ever seem to express that belief.

Well Red, there are a couple of possibilities that might explain that:

1. You might be wrong about what agnostics think.

2. You might not have read everything I've blogged on the subject.

One hopes your existence would be worth a little more to you than your computer, though.

It is like this - death comes to everyone, it will come to me also.

It is pointless to bewail that fact. We are all traveling to an unknown destination. Some people think some things happen after you die, others think some other things happen. But no one really knows.

I don't see any reason to get all worked up over something that is inevitable and unknown because nothing I can do will prevent it and nothing I can do will reveal to me what happens when it comes.

Instead, I choose to take pleasure in what I can do and what I can know.

You seem to think - well, honestly I'm not really sure what you think about that stance except that you don't seem to approve of it.

John E. said...

John E., saying you won't care about ceasing to exist because it doesn't bother you that you didn't exist before 1967 is a little like saying that because no one had a computer before 1967 you wouldn't much care if your computer was destroyed and you were somehow forbidden ever to have another.

Eh? I'd say it is more like being told that with 100% certainty, at some time in the future, my computer will be destroyed and I'll never have another.

Well, knowing that, I could react in different ways.

One of which would be to wail and moan about that and then to decide that because one day I won't have a computer, then all my efforts to use my computer are for nothing.

And another would be to take pleasure in the time that I now have with my computer and to find interesting things to do with it.

Chris-2-4 said...

"I don't see any reason to get all worked up over something that is inevitable and unknown because nothing I can do will prevent it and nothing I can do will reveal to me what happens when it comes."

Claim what you will, John E, but that is not the remark of an AGNOSTIC. It smacks of the certainty of annihilation, the hallmark of atheism.

John E. said...

Claim what you will, John E, but that is not the remark of an AGNOSTIC. It smacks of the certainty of annihilation, the hallmark of atheism.

So you are certain that you know exactly what every agnostic must think about this subject?

Siarlys Jenkins said...

When there is a public outburst of atheistic angst over the fact that some of us remain so irrationally superstitious as to embrace some faith or other built around a deity, my first response is to wonder why these loud-mouths devote so much time and effort to something they believe doesn't exist.

I am beginning to find a similar sort of absurdity in the intensive efforts of various philosophlettes to shout down the atheists.

I must add that there is a difference between taking the words a debating opponent did say, and burlesqueing those words for humorous effect, on the one hand, and putting words in their mouth that they didn't say at all, in order to point out how pathetically easy it is to debunk the fictional statements. Erin is certain she has been indulging in the former -- a legitimate form of polemic -- but it appears to me she has been doing the latter.

I'm not sure how much study existential quandaries are really worth. There should be some sort of work product that is useful to humanity. One of the problems with Aristotle is that he "reasoned" about things he had never touched, tested, or experimented with. That's how he figured out that the (round) earth sat in the cesspit of the universe, surrounded by happier and higher states of existence.

Is it worth pondering whether there is a God who created all that is, seen and unseen, and what that God might want or expect of us? I think so. But if one is reasonably convinced that there is no God, it is not nihilism to proceed to find what joy there may be in the existence we know we have. Who knows? God may welcome some of these atheists "Well done, thou good and faithful servant," while enjoying the incredulous look on the face (if we have faces in the next life) of their newly welcomed sons and daughters.

Insomniac said...

Well, if we're going to talk about labels, throwing about the word "agnostic" can mean several different things. Agnosticism can be thought of "fence-sitting", but it specifically applies (or at least in nonreligious circles) to the position of knowing, not knowing, or not thinking that the question is answerable. For example, consider agnostic atheists. They can't prove that there can't be a god that hid its tracks from everyone or that everything is a computer simulation, but see no reason to live like there is. My brother is an agnostic (semi-)theist. When he experiences the sublime/beautiful, he often applies spiritual terminology to explain it. However, he also feels that his experience is subjective and that any verification would be far beyond human capacity. I've a friend who's an existentialist and will denounce apologists but congratulate religious existentialists for "acknowledging the absurdity".

Funny old world, isn't it? None of these people claim religiosity and all of them share beliefs that could be labeled "atheism". I think you hit upon something at the beginning.

"new atheism isn't so much a philosophy as a mishmash of personal thoughts, platitudes, and a sort of hybrid of materialistic secularism and the less-attractive parts of existentialism..."

New atheism is just a label applied to recent voices. It's not a coherent belief system because it's just a name applied to a diverse group of beliefs. t could be Suppose we were talking about Christianity. I could say, "Christians burn witches" or "Christians take no issue with gays", or even "I'm a Catholic, but...". If I applied these to you, you could justifiably protest against any number of these. They don't describe you beliefs, they describe others with similar terminology or that are simply lumped in with you by the outside. It's the same with atheists. They can be secular humanists, natural law ethicists, Nietzschean supermen, Raelians, Scientologists, altrusits, Spiritualists, Existentialists, conservatives, liberals, Marxists, Objectivists, ignostics, agnostics, nihilists, solipsists, or just someone who had never given any thought to religion.

Putting a label on this motley crew is understandable, but legislating what they do or do not believe and then pontificating on it is misleading at best and insulting at worst. No different then if I took any Christian beliefs (or a mashup of various sects) and claimed they are representative of Christians as a whole.

Geoff G. said...

And the answer to the last: crickets.

Red, that's really not fair. I've known plenty of people, both believers and non-believers, who've wrestled with precisely that question. Heck, it's the central question of classical philosophy. And not an inconsiderable amount of early-modern to contemporary thinking as well.

A lot of these "new atheism" posts seem to be pooh-poohing atheist thoughts and beliefs, and saying "nanny, nanny boo-boo, look at how deep and involved my spirituality is and how pathetic yours is."

The fact of the matter is, lots of religious people don't really wrestle with these questions either. Sure, they go to church on Sunday, send their kids to CCD or Sunday School, try to live a generally decent life, and vote against abortion and gay marriage and do all the things that their peers are doing all around them. But they accept the articles of their faith without much question and live in more-or-less the manner that suits them. So a little infidelity or cheating on the taxes or petty theft from the workplace now and then is just fine.

And yes, most agnostics and functional atheists are this way too. They just don't go to church on Sunday.

But there are religious people out there, just as there are non-religious people out there that really do take these questions seriously and wrestle with them all the time.

And that's one of the reasons I do enjoy this blog, because you, and many of your commenters, do take your faith extremely seriously and are willing to test and analyze it from different points of view to be sure that it tests validly.

And moreover, you do do you best to take the consequences of that tried-and-true faith and live your life accordingly.

I personally find myself wrestling with these questions more and more, even though I'm neither a Catholic nor a Christian. Indeed, that's one reason I've gone back into the texts that predate Christianity and look for some of the other answers that people have reached over the centuries.

So it's a bit harsh to just have you run roughshod over whatever work I have done because you don't necessarily agree with my (current) conclusions. Particularly when there are overwhelming numbers of Christians and Catholics who are unwilling to do the same kind of seeking and thinking themselves.

It's an unfortunate fact of life, Red, and I wish it were otherwise, but you and I and your readers are a bit of a breed apart.

Geoff G. said...

John E., saying you won't care about ceasing to exist because it doesn't bother you that you didn't exist before 1967 is a little like saying that because no one had a computer before 1967 you wouldn't much care if your computer was destroyed and you were somehow forbidden ever to have another.

Your analogy should rather read, "because no one had a computer before 1967 you wouldn't much care if your computer and your awareness of their existence was destroyed," because a non-existent entity cannot have any awareness of existence by definition.

But even this analogy is problematic, because it presupposes the existence of John E. to feel the absence of computers, whether he's aware of them or not, when the whole substance of the discussion is that he would not be at all. There would be nothing there to feel any absence.

John E. said...

Geoff, of course you are right and your elaboration goes to the heart of why I think it is just silly to get all angsty over the idea that my self-awareness may be obliterated upon my death.

To me, it just seems darned silly to waste the time that I have now - while I am something - worrying about a time in the future when I'll be nothing.

In the meantime, I'll enjoy my breakfasts.

Insomniac - very good point about labels there.

Red Cardigan said...

Geoff, you know I take seriously anyone who wrestles with deep spiritual questions, regardless of their conclusions.

The New Atheists (I'm speaking specifically of them) seem to be known by their dismissal of spiritual questions, with a kind of brash "Bzzzz! Sorry, no soul or spiritual world exist. Next question?"

Not all atheists are New Atheists. Some of the more traditional atheists find them as brash and jarring as I do.

Anonymous said...

But haven't you also rejected their viewpoint with a "Bzzt, sorry, no belief in God no goodness or intelligence. Next question?"

I've never really understood the amount of energy believers put in trying to attack New Athiests if they really believe their arguments are so weak.

Lynette said...

I'd like to echo Geoff here.

You'll find many, many Christians who haven't put any thought into their religion or philosophy, just as you'll find many atheists who likewise haven't thought deeply into their positions. And I'd wager that in both groups, you'd find the emotive swings of decisions and morality based on how one feels or what ought to be right rather than grounding in some ethical theory.

It's a tough fact to face, but not everyone will find those questions you pose pertinent or important, and the propensity to tackle with them is not solely the home of the theist or the atheist. Some do not have the luxury to think about it because of the toils of their day and other demands. But a caveat is that we are all individuals, alone in our aspirations, interests, and endeavors, and we are happily characterized by little labels or groups ("Christian", "atheist", "straight", "gay") that assume too beyond the person involved. I don't expect everyone who calls themself a "Christian" to know even of the Summa Theologiæ (in fact most that I've met do not), just as I wouldn't one who goes by "atheist" to be well-versed the literature on existentialism.

So yes, cringe or cackle when you find an atheist who philosophically has the mettle of a four-year-old. Take pleasure that, wow, you beat them atheists! How foolish and silly they are!!

But also remember that there are foolish and silly Christians. What it comes down to, is that we have foolish and silly people of all breeds and colors...whatever you happen to label them at the time.

limey said...

Angela C. said...
Personally, what's horrible about total non-existence is that it renders everything I've experienced absolutely meaningless. That's the horror of oblivion -- every sorrow, pain, anxiety, fear that I have lived through (and tried to offer up as an act of redemptive suffering) was for nothing. I do not know how an atheist can be so nonchalant about going through all this pointless, random misery. It would make me waver between fury and despair.

Why should it be any different?

I am very much okay that none of my sorrow, pain, anxiety or fear is going to add a single microsecond to my existence. My sense of self importance is not such that I consider my experiences anything more than mine, to die when I do.

Nothing can change the fact that when you die, that's it, your existence is over and your memories are no more. So why struggle against what can not be changed? It's wasted effort that could be far better spent playing Angry Birds. Maybe I should get an iPhone after all.

If I was being unkind, I could suggest that the concept of an afterlife is the creation of the weekminded who can't accept the finality of life. But since this atheist is nice I'll leave it for one of those horrid New Atheists to suggest ;-)

c matt said...

Well Angela, I'm sorry your life has been one of pointless random misery - mine has been pretty good, on the whole.

Even if it were the best life, it would be just as pointless.

Nothing can change the fact that when you die, that's it, your existence is over and your memories are no more.

That is the whole rub to this question - do you or don't you exist after death? Pascal's wager may not be a proof of God's existence, but it is an eminently reasonable way of expressing why examining the question is of utmost importance. The stakes are way too high to ignore or take lightly. The atheist does risk eternal damnation, whether he wishes to admit it or not.

John E. said...

Even if it were the best life, it would be just as pointless.

Yes...and...?

Kimberly Margosein said...

"Pascal's wager may not be a proof of God's existence, but it is an eminently reasonable way of expressing why examining the question is of utmost importance."

But WHICH god or gods?

c matt said...

Kimberly,

You seem to be missing the point. Are you familiar with Pascal's wager?

Yes...and...?

and what? Nothing.

If I was being unkind, I could suggest that the concept of an afterlife is the creation of the weekminded who can't accept the finality of life.

Limey, so kind of you not to suggest that. I would likewise hate to suggest that the concept of total annihilation is the creation of the weak(not week)minded who are too afraid to face eternal consequences for their actions. I'll leave that to the horrid New Theists to suggest.

Sleeping Beastly said...

@Angela C: Nothing can change the fact that when you die, that's it, your existence is over and your memories are no more. So why struggle against what can not be changed?

Why cry at a funeral? Why bother washing the dishes? Why do anything? Generally speaking, the atheist response is, "because I choose to" and they believe there can be no better response. The Christian response is generally, "because it pleases God" and they believe there can be no better response. Both responses make sense, given the premises each starts from regarding the existence and nature of God.

If I was being unkind, I could suggest that the concept of an afterlife is the creation of the weekminded who can't accept the finality of life.

...and I could suggest that the concept of personal annihilation is the invention of weakminded people who don't have the courage to contemplate Hell. But all we would accomplish would be to prove that mind-reading and disparaging the motives you imagine others to have is a very poor way to conduct a discussion

Angela C. said...

Oh my, look at the responses. :)

@John E.: I was merely trying to explain how I might view the world if I held the belief that God doesn't exist. My life is definitely very sweet, and I give thanks to God every day for the gift of life.

Limey said "If I was being unkind, I could suggest that the concept of an afterlife is the creation of the weekminded who can't accept the finality of life. But since this atheist is nice I'll leave it for one of those horrid New Atheists to suggest".

Well, there's quite a lot of intellectual rigor involved with believing in an afterlife, and acceding my will to the wisdom of Holy Mother Church. That might sound quite passive, but it's not because I have to struggle against my inclinations all the time. And to disabuse anyone that I think about death calmly, I don't. It scares the daylights out of me -- the physical experience, and contemplating that I might not be spiritually prepared. I think about death daily, and I pray about it daily, and it usually sounds like this: "Lord, have mercy, I believe, help my unbelief."

@Sleeping Beastly: it seems you have me mixed up with someone else. :)

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Pascal's wager relies on several axiomatic premises which I believe to be false. The most glaring is that life is a spiritual rat's maze, in which our primary duty is to find the "right thing" to do, and do it with sufficient consistency and sincerity, that the lab master will be favorably impressed. A closely related premise is that acknowledging the primacy and suzerainty of the lab master is the most important and effective way of making a favorable impression.

Frankly, I don't believe c matt or Red actually practice their faith in quite this way, although many of the things they say would appear to support Pascal's premises.

I very much doubt that "I believe you exist" is sufficient for salvation, or "I don't believe you exist" is sufficient to inflict eternal doom.

We are not here to jump through hoops so as to earn ourselves a satisfying cosmic supper. We are here to grapple with how to build relations to our fellow humans, and how to exercise the dominion we do in fact have over many of the phenomena of the earth.

There is no neat little checklist to fulfill, although it appears that "rip out their hearts and pile them in a stone bowl on a pyramid" is a spiritual dead end. There are some significant guide posts, but in the end, we had best live our lives as best we know how, because that is what our Creator (if any) is examining.

That would be worth doing even if it turns out we are a cosmic accident. There is nothing wrong with saying "I am, therefore my life is important to me, and we are, therefore our lives are important to me." Faith in God does tend to objectify this a bit.

Sleeping Beastly said...

@Angela C: Whoops! Sorry. Between my responding to the wrong person and my laughable mistypings, I think I will give up commenting from my phone.

Slow Learner said...

The analogy which I have found to be most apt is this:
When you go to the theatre, and you see a play lasting three hours, with emotional highs and lows, and a shocking twist in the finale. Do you rage at the fact that it ended? Do you exclaim that a play which is not everlasting is pointless? Or do you appreciate the experience it gave you?

As I am aware that my consciousness is deeply linked with my physical brain, and my physical brain, as part of my body, will die, decay and disappear - that does not make everything I can do meaningless. It has meaning to me; it has meaning to those around me; and I will play my small part in the grand tapestry of human existence.
I will not go gladly into that good night, but that is because I see life as a wonderful thing, and I am enjoying the time I have.

Fundamentally, I have two choices, staring into the billions of years of oblivion on either side of the mayfly that is my life. I can shrink into a foetal ball and decline to do anything; or I can do the best I can with the time I have to do good by myself and those around me. I have chosen the latter, and I defy you to show the former to be a more moral, more interesting or more respectable choice.
The sadness which I see around my death is leaving loved ones behind me, no longer being able to help or support them and knowing that I will be missed, just as I miss my loved ones who have died. I won't be there to be sad about it, though.

Anonymous said...

Though a Catholic myself, I would point out John E´s responses are not shallow and unrepresentative of ancient thought. On the contrary, his thoughts regarding death and non-existence- and how we should live in the face of them- are a very close approximation to Epicureanism, one of the great branches of Hellenistic philosophy.

Matthew

Stray_Bullet said...

Maybe I'm listening too closely, or not closely enough. But it seems to me that atheists strongest arguments (in their minds) is that all of the pain, destruction, intolerance and hatred religion has brought into the world render it not only a meaningless endeavor on the part of humanity, but a dangerous, backward ideal. And this is in all likelihood true. I defer to history in reaching this conclusion. Reducing the argument to a purportedly "philosophical" really lends no credence to either side of the coin. And when atheists point out these obvious shortcomings of religion (and it really doesn't matter what religion) they are ignoring an aspect of humanity that would exist with or without religion.

Humans, one and all, are materialistic creatures. And they fear anyone and anything that may (in their mind) threaten what makes up their material world (and yes, ideas are part of the material world).

Now whether religion actually engages humanity's worst aspects(pain, destruction, intolerance, and hatred), again I defer to history. But atheists, have no evidence that a discontinuation of belief in god(s), would somehow allow humanity to shed these traits. It is not a chicken egg conundrum, asking "Have we always had these traits?" or "Has religion reduced us to this?". We are what we are. And it has never really mattered whether you embrace religion, or what religion you embrace.

It's really not anymore complicated than that. And the attempt at appearing philosophical about it is just so much milk left in the bowl after you finish your cereal.

lapelpinhead said...

I don't believe there is any part of our selves that survives the death of the body. During my 52 years of life this is something I've spent thousands of hours contemplating. We've all experienced periods of a kind of non-existence, when we know nothing, feel nothing, remember nothing, do not experience the passage of time, feel no pain or pleasure or fear or anything at all. At a minimum we all experience this during deep dreamless sleep. There are two occasions in my life when I was knocked unconscious. Many of us have experienced general anesthesia. It seems very plausible to me that these events represent what we experience after the brain ceases to function: absolutely nothing.

If the source of our conscious awareness were an entity robust enough to exist on its own outside of our body, I seems unlikely that merely changing the brain chemistry should so dramatically affect it. I think further evidence that our minds are determined by the workings of the brain come from the profound changes in personality and mental abilities that are observed in people with brain diseases or injuries.

What should not seem surprising, given our experiences of human nature, is that we might wish ourselves to be such grand and noble creatures that we are entitled to an eternity of existence. I have never observed anything in my life to add the least bit of plausibility to the truth of this wish.

If it is correct that we have no existence after the body's death, what is the meaning of our lives then? It seems to me that all of the genuine meaning of our lives would be outside ourselves, since like our earthly treasures, we can take none of our interior world with us beyond death. So it is in the children we bring into the world, and the ways in which we touch other lives, in the services we render and in the enduring things we may create during our lives. The meaning of our lives is in how we effect others, and in how those effects my continue to bring goodness into the world after our deaths.

As to the great questions, like "Why are we here?" and "What is life?" and "Why is there pain and suffering?" and "What is the proper response to the existential horror of total non-existence which we believe is our only lasting destiny?" I think I just gave a decent answer to the last of these questions: the proper response is to strive to bring the most good into the world and the least harm into the world as you possibly can during your limited years of life. Strive to create what is enduring and will benefit the most people. Raise your children to the best of your ability, create schools, charities, businesses, art, literature, music, advance the frontiers of knowledge in science, economics, politics, etc. These are the things that I believe can bring contentment on our death beds, and create that sense of inner peace that we have lived our lives well.

And the other questions? The best way to terminate the childlike sense of awe and wonder associated with pondering these questions is to adopt the teachings of one of the worlds many religions. Then you will believe that you already have the answers, and no longer need to ask these questions or search for answers. For if you have faith, continuing to question shows the weakness of your faith. If you continue questioning with the kind of reverence and wonder that scientists have as they seek to unravel the most intimate mysteries of nature, then you might ask questions like "How was God made?", and "If our children are very ill, why don't we place our faith and trust in God rather than taking them to the hospital?"

Matunos said...

Just because someone doesn't answer a riddle that you pose doesn't mean there is some flaw in their worldview. Sure, many atheists avoid the question of "why are we here?" in the sense you mean it, because it presupposes that there is an answer you'll like. But you don't like our answer... that there a reason for our existence, but no purpose to it, other than what we impart.

It may be disconcerting for you to imagine a world without divine purpose, and there is surely a host of ethical conundrums that result from such a position. Similarly, there are conundrums that result from the opposite position... such as the purpose of babies dying and Holocausts happening.

Yes, I realize that there are various responses that theology provides to try to reconcile theodicy with the problem of evil. My point is that either way there are complexities in arriving at a conclusion that satisfies our moral senses. But one way is not better just because it doesn't immediately square with your own beliefs.

Hyman said...

The reason you get crickets to your last question is that the answer is "whatever suits you". Some people regard nonexistence with angst and some regard it with nonchalance. Either of those is a result of different people having different thoughts and feelings, and there isn't anything for atheism to say about that, just as atheism isn't going to tell you what you should eat for dinner. Atheism isn't meant to answer all of life's persistent questions, it just tells you that gods and the supernatural and all their associated baggage don't exist.