Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Critiquing A Quote

A science blog posted this on Facebook a few days ago:

Oh, how I disagree with this quote, let me count the ways. I need to begin by critiquing the blog itself, though.  What the heck does this have to do with science, really? Science is a methodology, and it is a methodology that seeks to weed out a first-person perspective. What could talk of meaning, or meaninglessness, have apart from intentionality which presupposes a first-person perspective? 

Philosophy Professor Andrew Jeffery, commenting on this, sums up this critique succinctly, and far better than I ever could:

"... this is NOT science, and so should hardly be quoted by IFLS, unless they admit segue-ing into philosophy. The universe may be indifferent--nor not, but the indifference of the universe is not an empirically falsifiable hypothesis, and so cannot be a deliverance of science. The meaning of existence is a teleological question outside the scope of scientific methodology."

Quite right, and it dovetails nicely into the first critique I have with the quote itself. Is the universe indifferent? There can be no doubt that the laws of the universe do indeed seem indifferent to humanity. People live and die at the mercy of some cold, hard facts that do not seem to 'care' about us at all. However, the laws of the universe are not all there is to the universe. Beyond the facts of the universe is our experience of those facts. Or, as Alfred N Whitehead said, "There is a quality of life which lies always beyond the mere fact of life; and when we include the quality in the fact, there is still omitted the quality of the quality."

In other words, our experience of the world is in fact part of the world. Thus any analysis of whether the universe is indifferent, based on the total facts of the world, must include facts about our experience of the world.

Take one particular experience, which is the experience of suffering. I would argue that suffering requires us to talk in religious terms to communicate it properly. Suffering is not just the sense of God's absence...that is a rather bearable situation. Suffering comes to us as an assault. To suffer is to feel AS IF there were a God and that God HATES you. I think no one captured the truth of what it is like to suffer better than the writer of the Book of Job, and this is that writer's experience. In other words, religious language is the only language that gives me some ability to communicate what suffering is like. Suffering is LIKE the universe is not indifferent to me, but rather hates me.

On the positive side, beauty is like I'm being told by the universe that life is good or I am loved. That is just what beauty is LIKE, at least to me. I know no other way to talk about beauty that effectively communicates the experience. And as we discover laws that seem indifferent, we find a universe that is continuously beautiful, in ever-expanding and intricate ways, at every conceivable level. That beauty, I say, stands as evidence of a universe that is NOT indifferent to us.

So we have conflicting facts there. We have the facts separate from the quality of life, which is what science does (separates the facts from the quality and studies them independently, or mostly independently), and we have the quality itself. The facts disentangled from the quality point one direction, the quality itself another.

But lets assume, for the sake of argument ONLY, that the universe is indifferent to us. Does our existence as a meaning then have genuine meaning? Does the fact that we project our own 'light' onto the universe give our species a special meaning? Let's assume something additional as we explore this line of thought: that our species really does project some kind of 'light' onto the universe. I have to say as an aside that I am doubtful about this. One can persuasively argue (as some have) that humanity is more a cancer than a 'light'. There is a huge problem called 'sin' lurking about here. But lets leave that aside. Let's also leave aside issues of relativism. I think atheists can justify virtue without God, can make sense that there is a right or wrong. The question is whether this light is meaningful, and whether or moral beliefs matter if the universe is indifferent.

I don't see how they could be. One has to parse out what the hell one means when they talk about 'meaning'. I have argued elsewhere that meaning only really bottoms out into talk of significance, and that ultimately our talk of meaning only makes sense when one puts it in the context of a contrast between the temporal and the eternal. In other words, EVEN IF we project light onto the universe, the fact that darkness will eventually and inevitably overtake it, robs that light of any meaning.

Nothing you do matters, in an indifferent universe. The very fact that people care about posterity is proof that life itself is not enough. We NEED to have what we do last, for us to have any sense of it mattering. That is just what meaning IS, as far as I can see.

Just because virtue doesn't matter, doesn't mean we shouldn't be virtuous. In a meaningless universe, it still makes sense to try to instill your values into the world (though, I think, a radical shift in what value IS should take place if we really accept an indifferent universe). Accepting life as meaningless would be as important as accepting the world as indifferent. And the latter implies the former.

You pursue what you like. That's cool, do that. Don't pussy foot around your pursuit of your particular and meaningless values by trying to co-opt the language of meaning. Me, I think if a person really struggled with this stuff, really faced it, they would be so radically changed that they would EITHER undergo a serious ethical shift (their values would start to look very, very different than what we normally think of when we think of ethics) OR, they would leap into something like faith. For me, the Kubrick quote is a side-step. But if you're going to be all stoic about the indifference of the universe, don't wuss to the left just when you are about to do the really brave thing and go the whole nine and re-evaluate human life in the face of a MEANINGLESS universe.

Me, I think it's all bull. I cannot live AS IF the universe has meaning some of the time and believe it doesn't the rest of the time. And I am incapable of living without those experiences of meaning that inform so much of my life (play, humor, beauty, sacrificial love, the importance of the moral, etc). So, I'm a wuss and I live into faith to complete what is incomplete in me. If you're going to be the strong one, be the strong one. This one foot in and one foot out thing is just garbage.

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