Sunday, November 23, 2014

The beanpole conundrum

Earlier today, I got pinged about what I referred to as the “abyss of popular atheism”. Here's a written response that, I hope, is better articulated than the verbal response that I fumbled through earlier.

Short version: Arguing for popular moralistic atheism is like arguing that your beanpole is more upright than my beanpole in a context where gravity does not exist. Where there is no gravity, there is no “up”, hence the abyss.

Much longer version: I can accept that some beanpoles are more upright than others. I can even accept that my beanpole might be heavily skewed and needs righting. However, I cannot accept your objection to the uprightness or otherwise of my beanpole in a context where gravity does not exist or is absent. If there is no gravity, the whole concept of uprightness is meaningless, and so the proposition that your beanpole is more upright than mine meaningless. In such a context, no beanpole can be more upright than any other beanpole, because there is no “up”.

It's a metaphor, of course, about what we choose to train our lives (bean-plants) on. What I'm trying to say is that the issue of the uprightness, or goodness of one beanpole or another (be it theism, atheism or whatever) only makes sense where gravity exists and is present. By gravity, I am referring to God, or at least a God-pseudonym. By God-pseudonym, I mean something along the lines of the ultimate truth or reality that sustains the cosmos in which we live, or perhaps the purpose and direction of life, the universe and everything.

My problem with popular atheism is that it often holds itself up as more upright than theism. You don't need to go far beyond the book titles from Richard Dawkins, Richard Hitchens, or the juvenile rants of I Love F******g Atheism to get that. This, to me, is utterly inconsistent with the intellectual constraints of atheism proper, but very few atheists seem to have thought it through to its logical conclusions. Or, if they have, they don't see a need to correct their colleagues.

These are not just my opinions. They are expressed by professors of philosophy who are far better informed than I, including Friedrich Nietsche on one side (if I understand him rightly) and the likes of William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga on the other. These guys are not intellectual lightweights, and it is irresponsible for popular atheism to gloss over them as if they had nothing relevant to say.

I'm not saying this because I dislike atheists. I genuinely cannot find a warrant for the moral superiority of anything in an atheistic cosmos. It's the problem of the uprightness of beanpoles where there is no gravity to point us “up”-ward.

Allow me to expand.

What I mean by meaning or morality is something fundamentally different to what I find significant or what I like. I accept that what I like is an expression of my genetic and sociological heritage. However, something that is good or right might well be something that I don't like – it doesn't necessarily map to the boundaries of my preferences and prejudices. So, my preferences and prejudices may need to be aligned to what is good and right, and you can name all manner of issues or scenarios in which this is true. I should align my beanpole to the true "up", not just whatever arbitrary direction your beanpole is pointing in.

Where it gets problematic is in what differentiates good from bad, up from down.

If atheism proper were true, then when we do good, we are only expressing our genetic and social heritage. The “only” part is important, because we cannot invoke a moral plane without crossing over into some kind of spirituality or theism, and that would annoy the hell out of Dawkins, Hitchens and I Love F******g Atheism.

However, it would also mean that when we do bad, we are only expressing our genetic and social heritage.

In other words, there is no difference, other than the differences that we perceive or project onto it.

But that doesn't solve it, because our perceptions are also only the expression of our genetic and social heritage. I like what I like because my genetic and social heritage tells me what I like, even if I get some degree of freedom in the matter (which is not as self-evident as you might suppose). The same goes for our our presuppositions, our prejudices and so on.

If this were the case, and atheism proper gives us no viable alternative, then there is nothing to commend one person's likes or dislikes over another's. We cannot say “you are wrong” because, in actuality, we just don't like what you are doing. Neither can we say “you are wrong” because what you're doing interferes with what we want or like. And, what we like broadens to encompass our self-survival which extends to the survival of our offspring. There's nothing to say that the survival of ourselves, or our offspring, is more morally justified than the survival of someone else and their offspring. In fact, we could even question the assumption that surviving and procreating is an inherently good thing. What I'm trying to say is that there is a very real problem in finding some kind of bedrock or warrant, apart from God, on which to build our moral edifices.

Its a confronting challenge, but who said that the ultimate reality of the situation would conform to our likes and preferences?

If we disabuse ourselves of sentimentality, we find with Nietsche that all objective morality collapses into the void, and we are left with nothing but the will to power. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that just as the moral universe collapses into the void, so the whole universe follows and we are left with nothing. We even find that our existence in the here and now is untenable.

You may counter by saying that that is not our experience. We know we are here. I could respond by saying that our experiences are nothing more than the delusions thrust upon us by our evolutionary heritage, and we actually know nothing at all, not even our own existence. That's what I mean by the abyss of atheism.

Or, I could respond by saying that as we are made in the image of our Creator, we have the capacity to perceive and reflect the ultimate reality that brought the cosmos into being. The difference between the two world-views is as profound as the difference between light and darkness.

Post-script: I sensed some resentment in the query I got earlier. If popular moralistic atheism makes someone happy, why not just leave them be? Why take such offence to it? Why not let sleeping dogs lie?

I think it's ironic that the shonky defences we theists used to put up against the challenges of atheism are now being put up against us.

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