This week’s reading is hopefully a bit varied. Some of them I might address, with praise or scorn, later. In no particular order we have Dawkins telling us why the Pope is bad, m’kay? Boring stuff, as usual, but I think it has more to do with the Guardian wanting to sell some papers than Dawkins really trying to prove a point. Continue reading
The Free Society Institute (FSI) is submitting a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa (ASASA) regarding the claims of Power Balance concerning their “performance enhancing” bracelets. I’m uncertain whether you need to be a South African to sign the petition; nonetheless, please sign this petition so we have some impact against those who make grand, unfounded claims especially in areas of health.
Says Power Balance: “Power Balance is based on the idea of optimizing the body’s natural energy flow, similar to concepts behind many Eastern philosophies. The hologram in Power Balance is designed to resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body.”
I had no idea I had an energy field to work with nor a natural energy flow. The term “Eastern philosophies” is just a nice brushstroke of woo, since there exist Eastern philosophies that say little or nothing about the body’s “energy flow” (indeed, concepts like parinirvana, talk about the complete destruction of the body for the benefit of enlightenment). The usual questions should immediately be where is this energy, what is this energy, who is this energy, how is this energy – but of course, if it’s designed by athletes, it must work!
Unable to relinquish my love of Cracked.com, I find myself constantly perusing it to the detriment of many other projects (like my thesis, assignments, girlfriend and life in general). This is not completely without merit, considering its basis in knowledge-generation and our shared dislike of all things Gaga, Palin and Scientology. When Cracked writers touch on religion, however, they make noises that harmonise all too well with bad apologetics and a simple-minded “Cant-We-All-Get-Along” attitude, which, I think, is dripping with a juvenile, optimistic and, unfortunately, ignorant assessment of the matters at hand.
David Wong, one of their best writers, wrote an article with the dewy-eyed title of “10 Things Christians and Atheists Can (And Must) Agree On”. In it he outlines 10 simplistic foundations which are aimed at making both sides drop their eyes, rub their necks and mumble apologies. He targets primarily Christians and atheists. He claims that both have got it oh so wrong in their “approach”.
Let’s get some preliminaries out the way: there are, undoubtedly, good and terrible ways to engage with people of the opposite metaphysical and moral persuasion. By this I mean groups of people who either believe morals come from divine sources or natural ones (even a mixture of the two, as in theistic evolution, falls into the former since the source remains divine). Sure: there are fence-sitters and swingers, who dance between because their feet are on fire from heated aggression or heated argument or burning reasonable truth from either side. But, arguments for agnosticism are very boring and, really, can also be bifurcated. You can be a staunch agnostic because of atheistic arguments but not be a complete atheist yourself.
I agree with Wong on this point: there are bad arguments for my side. But from there his train of thoughts goes off the rails of rationality. Let us look at his arguments.
His first subtitle is: “Celebrating the death of somebody you disagreed with pretty much makes you a dick.” As he explains: “I doubt anybody reading this has ever waved a snarky sign at a funeral, so I think we’re pretty much all in the same boat still. See? Common ground.” Using this as a template, he says it’s possible to find more and perhaps controversial places to find firm ground for both sides.
But why does this make you a dick? Firstly, consider the death of Jerry Falwell.
Hitchens, in this famous clip, talks about what a horrible, little man Falwell was. Calling him a toad and a fraud, Hitchens makes an important point: Hitchens said these things about Falwell while Falwell was alive. Hitchens is celebrating his death, I think, because Falwell cannot continue his fraud and cause suffering to any more people. This, to me, is reason to celebrate. Is anyone saddened when dictators die? Sure, a dictator’s death is not the immediate recreation of a country into a proper functioning liberal democracy, but it is a good first step if there are those willing to do so. What is wrong with celebrating a people finally being freed from a tyrant? This is a good emotion. Should we have a moment of silence for the death of mass murderers in jail? This is silly.
Secondly, as Hitchens highlights, just because someone dies, does not mean we change our tune. If you do change your tune, suddenly talking about what a wonderful person s/he was, then you are being inconsistent and, it seems, a “dick”. But, if you are playing the same tune at their funeral that you played at their birthday, I don’t see a problem. Wong is wrong, here.
Wong then launches into a series of arguments for common ground, having failed to establish what his first one could possibly mean.
“1. You Can Do Terrible Things in the Name of Either One”
According to Wong, “All I need from you is agreement that it’s entirely possible for either an atheist or theist world to devolve into a screaming murder festival. The religious leader sends his people into battle because he thinks God commanded it, the Stalins and Maos of the world do the same because they see their people as nothing more than meaty fuel to be ground up to feed the machinery of The State. In both cases, the people are equally dead.”
Yes, he opens with the Stalin-card. This should strike anyone even vaguely read in the various literature as a bad start.
Wong doesn’t tell us what he means by “atheism”. As I have said elsewhere, atheism is a useless term. It means, merely, a lack of belief in deities (or a belief there are no deities, though this latter definition is somewhat controversial. I certainly have no problem with it, however. I am as certain there are no supernatural gods as I am there are no pink unicorns). Wong falls into the same mistake as so many others, by making atheism into something relating to one particular deity – that is, the deity of the theism, particular Christianity. Perhaps this is what some people mean by atheism (which is why I think the term ‘atheism’ problematic) – but how insulting to all the other religions and deities that have existed! There is nothing special about the Christian god to us nonbelievers. We don’t believe in him any more/less than Zeus or Loki.
Believers have yet to tell us what makes disbelieving in their particular god, of their particular denomination, of their particular religion, so much more threatening to our souls (which they must also still prove) than not believing in all the others. (For an excellent list that illustrates this point, see here)
There is nothing to be done with atheism: it tells you almost nothing about a person’s morality, politics, personality and so on. Yes, there’s a lot to be said if we think someone believes she is here because of divine or natural reasons, but branching out from that is difficult if not impossible. Believers and nonbelievers support abortion policies, no slavery, women’s emancipation. What is more interesting, and I think fair, in the Great God Debate (stifle the yawn, please) is what both sides do “believe” in.
My apologies for those (very) few who have read my previous piece on this, but I must reiterate. I cannot speak for all atheists – only one may do so and even he does it in three voices – but my focus is based on what some call “Enlightenment values”. Valuing reason over faith, evidence over authority, ethical deliberation and reflection over Papal rules and regulation, beauty for its own sake, the reduction of suffering, and so on. The works of Paine and Jefferson, Kant and Bentham, Leonardo and Galileo, Darwin and Einstein, Russell and Neiman, Schopenhauer and Hume – and so on. Show me how a society, founded not only on these types of works, but also on these types of values – of reflection, evidence and reality – fall prey to the very things they all oppose – despotism, dictatorship, genocide, unjustified authority – and we will be on firmer ground.
It is simply idiotic to say we can talk about what Stalin didn’t believe in but what the Catholic Church did believe in – and somehow say both can lead to suffering. As I say, we should base our judgements in these debates on what both sides do believe in to make headway. There are millions of things we do not believe in, but play no part in the discussion. For example, it is an almost certainty that Stalin did not believe in the dancing fairies at the edge of my fingers. Similarly, Christians do not believe in it – does that mean that Christians will end up causing suffering because they share a disbelief with Stalin? This is a terrible argument and one that needs to be done away with. This is what the faithful claim when making the “Stalin move”: that we nonbelievers share a nonbelief with Stalin, and therefore, will end up endorsing regimes of death. Yet, we can easily pull the same card by saying: Stalin disbelieved in, say, Muhammad narrating the Final Word of God. Most Christians disbelieve this, too – therefore, Christians again are likely to be Stalinists. This is a bad argument.
So, no, Mr Wong. You are again, wrong.
Whereas we can point to the Magic Books of the three monotheists which include licences to murder and massacre, we cannot do the same for nonbelievers. After all, we nonbelievers do not think any of our favourite thinkers are anything other than fallible human beings (Jefferson endorsed slavery, Aristotle thought woman an incomplete man, Paine was too talented as a writer, etc.). We do not claim our books are magic or are written or inspired by deities. Fallibility is not a word recognisable to faith. And indeed nonbelievers can also treat thinkers as automatic authorities (as seen with some philosophers claiming Hume’s “is/ought” gap is impassable and, therefore, it is taboo to say science can say anything about morality); but when nonbelievers do this, they would be defeating what I see as a fundamental value: giving in to authority without critical reflection and a willingness to admit fallibility.
But, as I highlighted, atheists might very well do this because there is no unification principle of any interest with atheists save our shared disbelief in deities. They might very well give into various views I find idiotic or abhorrent, like The Secret, The Law of Attraction, etc. It only highlights that you cannot speak of any unification of atheistic views on matters of morality or politics. I might be a utilitarian and an atheist but someone else might be a Aristotelian-Communitarian and an atheist. Not realising this important point makes any argument against the Straw Man Atheist boring and impotent, as seen here.
“2. Both Sides Really Do Believe What They’re Saying”
This is a description which is perfectly unhelpful. So what? Wong justifies his point by highlighting people willing to die for their beliefs. This, Wong, proves people really believe it (for God, country, and freedom. People will kill themselves over anything and are willing to do the same to others) Here Wong makes one of the worst arguments – and there are plenty throughout this bad piece – I’ve encountered. Here is evidence Wong really is quite myopic and ignorant in his thoughts. Addressing us nonbelievers, he says:
If there’s no God, then there is something in the human brain that can and does present an amazingly realistic impression of one. A gland, an artifact of environmental pattern recognition, whatever you want to pin it on, the result is, at certain times and in certain moods, as tangible and real and distinct as the person sitting across from you on the subway.
You can say they’re wrong. You can say it all day, you can etch “YOU’RE WRONG” into the surface of the moon with a giant laser. But you’ll have a lot less angst if you remember that the thing they’re wrong about is something they honestly believe, down to their roots. I guess you could just call them crazy, but it’s a little silly to use that word when believers are the norm in human population. (Italics added.)
Reread that second paragraph. Our immediate thought should take us right back to Robert M. Pirsig, in his best-selling Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where he famously says: “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion.”
Unfortunately, Mr Wong, reality is not dependant on majority opinion. In one USA poll, in 2005, the majority of respondents rejected evolution as a fact. Does that mean we should accept their view because it is the majority? Similarly, it is highly likely great parts of the world thought our planet flat centuries ago. Did our planet alter its shape over time? Of course not. As Philip K. Dick so beautifully put it: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
So, if tomorrow, everyone except David Wong has a momentary revelation that states: “Everyone named David Wong is a blue cow” would that mean they are right? Would it make them sane because the delusion is dispersed? Spreading a bad belief does not make its statements any more real, any more true, nor any less insane, any less stupid. It only makes idiocy unafraid to display itself. No matter how many people believe David Wong is a blue cow, it is not true. And Mr Wong would be perfectly right to call everyone except himself insane.
As to the first paragraph, I am uncertain what his point is. I don’t think he fully thought out that paragraph. A gland? It is certainly thought that our incredible pattern-recognition is the basis of all superstition. The derivation of false-positives resulted in our ancestors being the ones to survive the dangerous landscapes of the past (movement in the grass = lion hunting me > movement in the grass = just some wind. The former more likely to survive.).
People believe all sorts of things are real because of this adaptation: Loch Ness, UFO’s, ghosts, spirits, elves, fairies and so on. It does not make it real. Just because we know why people believe in these things does not make it real. And this is important – if we maintained Mr Wong’s view that because it part of our adaptation, we must simply accept it, we would never bother curing ailments with medicine, since people really, really believe prayer would work. Because the sick little girl hasn’t got some bacterial infection, she has a demon. So what if we can describe where all these bad ideas come from? The point is, we know they are false, we can prove they are false and, more importantly, we have better explanations. Mr Wong ignoring this makes a terrible move.
(I also ask Mr Wong, in talking about god representation to contemplate Shermer’s First and Last Law: Any significantly advanced intelligent alien being is indistinguishable from god.)
I will continue my discussion of Wong’s post over the next few days.
According to Lord Windsor, abortion is the “the single most grievous moral deficit in contemporary life”. According to a Telegraph summary of the article, Windsor claims that “abortion is a bigger threat to Europe than al-Qaeda and Islamic terrorism.” Abortion has been somewhat in the spotlight in Europe, with Ireland facing some Alice in Wonderland madness in their rulings and decisions about such cases. Russell Blackford, as always, has provided some needed insight into the cases.
Windsor is acting on the view that, somehow, unborn people are morally equal to living people. The arguments are legion, but sharper are the counter-arguments. (It is interesting to note that even among living people, arguments for equality are problematic.) The reason we have such vitriolic – and in Windsor’s case completely unjustified – claims rests primarily in the theistic view that babies and foetuses and persons are the same. How we should think of it, they imply, is to consider the mass murder of babies in their cribs. We should equate a woman having an abortion the same way we view a mother who sticks a funnel into an infant’s mouth and pours poison into the baby’s throat. Our reactions should be harsh, terrified, wrathful, reckless, fence-shaking, chair-throwing.
This is the only way we can readily engage with the regular bad arguments for abortion. Yet, this all rests on the prior instance of making the case that, in fact, foetuses and the unborn are persons.
The first and most important point: humans are not persons. A ‘human’ is simply someone who is part of our species. A ‘person’, on the other hand, is a being capable of things like: rational reflection, mobility, self–identity, independent living. Importantly, it is also able to communicate – in some form – its own consciousness and reflection. Indeed, we face the dilemma of someone who might be conscious but immobile or incommunicable (for example, in anaesthesia awareness). Nevertheless, a foetus is none of those things. For example, in most cases, it cannot live outside the womb. This fact becomes compounded when we consider earlier stages of the foetus, earlier trimesters.
Indeed, being consistent with this views means we, as a species, are not the only ones to be treated as persons. If beings from, say, another planet, with no genetic relation to us, were to arrive, we surely would not treat them as nonhuman animals. For example, if we met genuinely friendly, communicative, reflective, beings who looked like us – but who shared nothing similar with us genetically – it is unlikely we would treat them with hostility. Of course, some of our species would – we kill each other over everything from pigment colour to bigger invisible friends. But we could argue successfully that we should not. If this is true, then we are not basing our morality on the genetic or species-relation to us.
Secondly, staying on our planet, the basis of the Great Ape Project is to incorporate other apes into the moral circle we draw to only include ourselves. Yet, as Peter Singer so regularly argues, on what basis are we judging our own species as more worthy of moral concern than gorillas or chimps?
If someone says, “It’s just because we are human beings that we deserve more moral concern than chimps” then he is justifying his morality based on the species-label of a being. But what is so special about a species-label? It is nothing that being can change willingly, nor morally relevant. There are members of our species who quite clearly do not deserve our compassion and respect, like Josef Fritzl and Joseph Stalin.
Our planet’s history is filled with atrocities committed against beings who have differed on aspects of their identity they were simply born with: their race, gender, country-of-birth, etc. Similarly, this prejudice, based on judging a being on its species-membership, is called ‘speciesism’ (a term coined by Richard Ryder). It is a prejudice no better than racism or sexism.
Furthermore this doesn’t answer the question, but simply reiterates it. When critics attempt to define what makes humans ‘special’ we enter murky waters, in which the reflections of people become jarred, broken and distorted. The pools of thought that we enter are shallow but, as Nietzsche so famously said: “They muddy the waters to make them seem deep.” (Yes, postmodernists, I am looking at you) There is no one staring back, from these waters, of any recognisable distinction when these arguments are poured out.
Consider intelligence as a constituent of moral concern. Our critic could say: “We should care about human beings because of their intelligence.” Firstly, not all humans are (highly) intelligent. And if we were, are we to treat those of lesser intelligence differently? As philosophers have pointed out, should an IQ-test determine whether intellectual people be made into the upper-class of society, whilst those of lesser intelligence be made their slaves? This is nonsense. Secondly, consider a day-old baby. Is there any doubt that an adult gorilla – who can build nests, communicate using sign-language, convey severe amounts of compassion and sympathy, and so on – is smarter than our newborn? The gorilla would easily win a battle of wits against this child; but would people start treating the infant with less concern? Of course not.
But we can pick any aspect of human identity: intelligence, consciousness, etc. All of these are (1) lacking in some human beings, such as the severely mentally handicapped and day-old human infants and (2) there are nonhuman animals who surpass members of our species in nearly every way, especially in the groups just mentioned.
There is therefore nothing special about our species that makes us more worthy of concern absolutely than nonhuman animals. More importantly, there is nothing special about being a human that automatically licences us being morally special.
So, a human is not necessarily a person – since nonhumans could easily constitute and fill gaps we consider special or the only refuge of human moral property. Also, day-old infants and the severly-mentally handicapped, who are members of our species, would not fill any of the requirements that are fleshed out when people elaborate on why being a human being is something worth constituting moral concern.
The second major problem arises when people talk about the potential of the foetus. A critic could say: “Fine. The foetus might be a human being but it is not a person. Yet, unlike a chimpanzee or gorilla, it has the potential to become a person. Therefore, we should grant it the rights to be treated as such. And, as such, aborting this potential person (PP) is killing a defenceless person, which is murder.”
Our critic has some unimportant points: ‘murder’ is different from ‘killing’, as I have pointed out elsewhere. ‘Killing’ is a neutral term, which means bringing about the end of some biological life. Deliberate or otherwise is unimportant at this point. ‘Murder’, on the other hand, is deliberate killing of a being who does not want to die. When the pendulum attached to murder swings the other way, we have something like euthanasia or suicide. I do not think killing an innocent human being is necessarily immoral or wrong, because a great act of compassion could be to put him out of further and needless suffering. But this is not the space for that debate.
Working backwards, our critic is not even correct. Firstly, it is not automatically murder to kill an innocent human being. There are acts of compassion which means taking the life of someone who wants to die. Indeed, parents are today able to abort foetuses they know would suffer if brought to term. This is not murder but suffering prevention.
Yet, the most important element of our critic’s point is the infamous “potentiality argument”. That is, unlike chimpanzees and gorillas, the foetus has the potential to become a fully-flourishing person. Nevertheless, the argument from potentiality has another fatal flaw: how far should we take the potentiality? John Harris, for example, highlights that we all have the potential for death. Should we treat each other as corpses? Certainly not. Yet, we all definitely have the potential to become human corpses (gorillas can definitely not become human corpses). And indeed, why treat the foetus as an alive, flourishing human being – it has the potential to become a mass murderer too and a corpse one day. The age-old Beethoven fallacy (“you might abort the next Beethoven, Chopin, Mandela, etc.”) for example makes a mockery of this, since who says you could not also be aborting Hitler or Mao?
Lord Windsor’s claim that abortion is worse than Al-Quaeda’s attack displays a profound ignorance of what is truly troubling for our times. There is nothing special about being a human being that warrants immediate moral concern; given this, treating a foetus as if it is a person, because it is a member of our species, is fallacious. Secondly, though it has the potential to become a person, it is also has the potential to become dead, a mass murderer, etc. In fact, we all have such potential. Yet morality should operate on how we are, not the millions of possibilities we could become.
We should be more fearful of living men would make others like their own ideas: dead. Muslim extremists are not some bogey-men but all too real. The most awful enemy is one unafraid to show himself because he is defended by those who should be your allies. Islam in its assumption of being special, as being the final in a line of irrational thinking about the universe and human life in general, has direct effects much like all forms of arrogant, irrational and bigoted thought. As HL Mencken said: “Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration — courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and, above all, love of the truth.” Yes, we can make a special case for Islamic extremists, but we need not. Any religious extremists, any ideological extremists, are worthy of our concern. And those who think such beliefs do not result in deaths, genocides and the worst forms of horror are living beneath a blanket of ignorance woven from the fibres of silent tears. A cry in the dark, a quiver in shadows, suffering in pitiless horror, still happens because people choose to continue idiocy, continue unnecessary horror. To throw off these blankets requires us to seriously focus our concerns and – today – our concerns are not the “unborn” but the “Reborn”.
As we approach the end of the year, I want to recommend some of my favourite blogs. If nothing else, I hope that my linking them will at least generate some heat (read: traffic) for these intellectual superiors.
In no particular order:
The New York Times has a webpage called The Stone, which brings philosophers of the highest calibre into one arena to write about publicly relevant topics. There will be no Kripke navel-gazing here. Everyone from Peter Singer talking about the end of our species, to my fellow 3quarksdaily writer, Frans de Waal, talking about morality minus god. It is regularly updated with new pieces from the biggest brains in philosophy and related fields.
My magnificent friend, Kenneth Lipp, recently started a brilliant blog. He has the qualities of eloquence, curiosity and scientific literacy. Being a scientist himself – a Cambridge Fellow, if you please – Dr Lipp is attempting to confront all manner of barking dogmatists who wag their tails at the mere hint of unreason. He tackles everything from the origin and idiocy of ‘Islamophobia’ to bad science – even from fellow scientists. Us non-scientists require the guidance of someone who himself wears the white coat, in order that the authority figures don’t silence us with them.
Arthur Caplan, regular contributor to Free Inquiry (a dream of mine only partially achieved), has a brilliant regular blog called ‘Breaking Bioethics’. Though mostly for an American audience, considering most of the issues are from his home-country, the arguments he lays out are – of course – universal.
Speaking of bioethics, I must mention the great Udo Schuklenk who first introduced me to the field – and, indeed, persuaded me into it (by accident!). He has both a blog and a ‘proper’ storage place for his academic papers. Both are extremely useful and make for excellent (indeed, required) reading. He offers often scathing, highly critical and clear insight into ongoing, international affairs regarding ethics – and indeed, things that people called ‘moral’ problems like homosexuality (really, that’s still a moral problem for people?).
Prof. Schuklenk’s fellow bioethicist, Russell Blackford, needs no introduction. His blog is frequented and consulted so often – everyone from Sam Harris to Ophelia Benson have spoken about, reference or link to it. Blackford is also a literary critic, having two PhD’s – though I have no doubt we might have some clashes when it comes to literature, his sobriety in anti-god and ethical discussion is admirable. It is a model of clarity and calm that everyone could learn.
However, if you are looking for humour, scathing analysis and insight, and updates on issues that require public awareness, my friend Emma has started a new blog. Considering her strength and resilience in fighting for women’s rights, equality and reason in every area – stamping on toes that were once curled safely beneath a carpet of comfortable argument – almost all activist type bloggers could learn much from here. Though we might disagree on tone, content remains equal and indeed she has the fortune of having a broad audience even before embarking on becoming a lady of letters.
For local flavour, South Africans are required to read Jacques Rousseau’s blog, ‘Synapses’. Ranging from dry humour to scathing satire, insight and clarity, Jacques’ insight into current affairs is a welcome and, indeed, required view from a South African writer. Considering the poor quality of writing we are regularly subjected to, this is a breath of fresh air. Indeed, even according to international standards, we have someone who comes close to being our Twain.
Staying with South Africa, the best ‘skeptic’ blog (we actually say sceptic with a ‘c’ though my fellow South Africans refuse to submit to this usage for some reason!) is by Angela Meadon. Her humour, clarity and insight is wonderful stuff – especially for us emerging South Africans.
Speaking of which, her husband, the cog-sci student Michael Meadon, has perhaps the most famous/popular website on science-focused thinking in South Africa. His attempts to get all South Africans of a similar disposition, like yours truly, under a banner is most admirable, considering herding blind squirrels is easier than getting god-botherers under a single tent.
His fellow cognitive-science student, my friend and intellectual heavy-weight, is the overly talented Blaize Kaye. No doubt one of those the gods dipped in the vat of talent too often, leaving but drops for the rest of us, Kaye regularly writes eloquently about topics ranging from the science of minds, brains, Tetris and belief to one of the best autobiographical accounts on dislocating the god limb from one’s body of intellectual insight.
I also must mention my friend Sister Y, who has had me engaged with her writing and thought in such magnificent ways that I hope to reciprocate one day (if she’d only let me). To engage with forms of thought that would challenge even the most hardened thinker, you can’t do better than her incredible blog – focusing on suicide, death, antinatalism, and other ways of thinking that most of us rarely even consider.
Kenan Malik maintains a website that is guaranteed to draw love and bullets. Essays, excerpts from his wonderful books, and so on, can be found here. If you want a challenge from someone with the highest intellectual calibre there is almost no place better than this best-selling author and public intellectual. For an example, read his excellent piece about WikiLeaks.
Next year I hope to have some others, but I hope this list helps brings a new audience to these wonderful writers. How they all manage to keep up this calibre is a mystery to us mortals, but let us be thankful they do.
UPDATE: 21/12/2010 – I added Sister Y. I can’t believe I forgot her from the initial one.
Without god, there is no fairy-tale ending to this life. Life, filled with glory and suffering, heart-filled wonder and atrophied passion, comes to a sudden end with a flat-line: a monotone ending to a symphonic life.
And being human, we can’t help but have rhapsodic variations on the theme of this ‘condition’. Dylan Thomas rightly warned his father to rage, rage against the dying of the light. But his assertions apply to us all and not only toward the end of life – to ‘not go gently into that good night’ is not merely about the end of existence but apathy, too. Indeed, as the French define the moment after sex as ‘the little death’, so giving in to apathetic nihilism is itself a kind of self-destruction – though not one that follows pleasure like la petite more.
One difficulty in cleaning the fairy-dust off the collar of maturity, before we straighten it and head out into the world with all its indifference and difficulty, is precisely this: to not give into the apathetic nihilism that calls to many. Of course being a complete nihilist is an almost impossibility, which is something Nietzsche highlighted quite often in his writing. The passion Nietzsche called for – as opposed to what Mel Gibson yelled for – recast in Anglo-Saxon eloquence by Dylan Thomas, is something we need to set straight our sails. Nihilism is not only counter-productive, it is also boring. Life’s ultimate meaninglessness is enough without trudging through it with dreary abandon and the heavy boots of banality, finally caught by a sense of fatigue, only to drop without pause into the grave. This will not do.
But remember, we don’t need fairy-dust to fly (we have planes), we don’t need gods to be moral (we have ethics), we don’t need heaven to find meaning (we have reality), and we don’t need myths to position ourselves (we have the ground). This is what it means to straighten the collar of maturity; we have no super best friends by our shoulders guiding us through our life.
Our lives are perhaps the ultimate expression of Ecclesiastes 1:18: ‘For in much wisdom is much grief; and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.’ As nonbelievers, we care about what’s true. What the religions teach, or rather, preach, is not true. Our conclusions as to the veracity of religions’ claims might initially sadden some; for others, like myself, it can be ecstatic. Or, as Bertrand Russell said, exhilarating.
So, whilst we might increase our knowledge about the world, finding religions’ claims lacking, we respond in different ways. Ultimately, however, we cannot escape the sorrow that our lives will end – indeed, for some of us, painfully. Others might be glad to see it end (and not for reasons that would legitimise euthanasia), but then, this discussion does not apply to such people.
It is easier to perhaps not think of future non-existence (death) than to truly face his haggard grin. To think on life is itself to think on death. As Cicero put it: ‘To study philosophy is nothing but to prepare one’s self to die.’ We often hear the phrase that death is a part of life, as if that somehow is consoling. Instead, we must learn to not ignore death. But, because of our strong ties to finding out what is true, we cannot let our future corpses force our current passions to stagnate. We are not wormfood yet, we are not ash in the wind today.
So, if life is ultimately meaningless, if death is the end for our individual life, if no tawdry reward awaits us after – which turns us all into a choir-slaves if we’re good and satanic playthings if we’re bad – what are we to do? It seems obvious from this that our brief splutter of life now, our little light of current realisation, should ignite a passion to live fully, greatly, wonderfully – but, most importantly – freely. Enclosing flames puts them out. As we rage, we must rage for good reason. And there are plenty – primarily they should be about others lives, other fires. We should aim at bettering the lives of others, since overall, we benefit ourselves.
Truly it is magnificent that life is ultimately meaningless. Firstly, I would feel enormous responsibility and, therefore, fear if my actions had cosmic repercussions. I don’t know how people who are guided by The Secret and astrology manage to live everyday without going mad from the echoes of their failures and over-indulgence and solipsism. Secondly, it means I am not special to anyone other than those who can directly appreciate my meaningfulness. This is not an ultimate meaningfulness, but a protracted one, in which loved ones come to orbit my tiny life. We need no more than that. We are, indeed, lucky if people know us and appreciate us beyond our immediate circle. But a greater gaze means a greater scrutiny: for this reason, we all are forced into knowing the sexual goings-on of B-list actors. Yet, ultimately, it leads back to my first point: that kind of responsibility is terrifying. Finally, living a life that has no ultimate meaning seems to indicate freedom – I am not tied to ancient scripture into maintaining a cosmic balance, I have no need to consult sexually-repressed, old men about what a deity needs from me, personally, in order that he doesn’t wipe out the species. I am free to be an adult, to face the slings and arrows of this outrageous fortune of living but not asking for it, facing suffering that in the end has no meaning. The price-tag on freedom, in this sense, is high; what we had to go through, as a species, so that I might pen these words, is something too awful and too incredible to at once consider.
Schopenhauer, in his magnificent The World as Will and Representation, asks the following: if you compounded all of a person’s suffering and hardship that he will go through in his life into one long act, an act of suffering bleeding into another, we must ask this person: ‘Do you want to live this life?’ For Schopenhauer, the answer was an obvious no. Schopenhauer does not ask about the opposite: what if we took all the joy and wonder in a person’s life and showed her? It seems obvious the person would then take it. If we showed both, which would we let the person experience first? Pain or happiness? Suffering or security? Schopenhauer was not myopic in leaving out the corollary to his question. He was particularly sensitive to the suffering of the world as a whole; a feeling, he stated, that we could all feel quite sharply. We all could feel the horror of the world, of differing lives; but we rarely could, to the same level, be affected by joy and wonder. No matter how many rainbows or Megan Foxes, for Schopenhauer, nothing can eliminate the universe’s cruel nature in its ‘natural disasters’ nor man compounding such evil with his own innate hate of anything that is different, strange or unknown.
Certainly it is cruel and hard; and you might disagree with Schopenhauer. But we have to begin a new conversation, because answering with gods and fairies will not change that the world really does not care about us being here and that our brief flash of life will be smaller than dust in a cosmic gas cloud. As we, even now, swirl around, let us not be tempted by the sirens of apathy or the barks of dogma. Because, as Plato reminds us, ‘Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a man.’