Monday, November 05, 2007

Random Thoughts on Theism and Atheism

To the atheist of the rational type (as I was), the world seems eminently rational: a cold, emotionless, unliving, uncaring machine, not the source either of values or of comfort. Values and comfort (cold comfort) comes from reason. It is the believers who seem senseless. To the atheist of the irrational type (such as an existentialist, or a nihilist) the indifference of the machine-cosmos is an affront, and he either shouts defiance at the cold, blind mechanism (see Nietzsche) or he wilts in despair (see Sartre). As Tolkien said under similar circumstance, the choices after rejecting heaven are either wrath or sorrow.

I see morality as fundamentally a matter of logic, rooted in self-evident first principles. It is as obvious, to me, that truth is better than falsehood, as it is that rocks do not float: indeed, the idea that rocks do not float would not be one my brain could conceive, if my senses were not truthful, or my brain did not work truthfully. The material world, which consists both of minds thinking and matter moving, cannot be examined by a mind that has no values (curiosity, if nothing else, must be a value) nor can it be examined for long by a mind which takes no concern for its self-existence.

In other words I believed (and still believe) an Ayn Randian argument that the idea of life presupposes the idea of values, since, unlike an inanimate object, in order to live, or even to finish a thought, a mind has to make a valuation of the good or evil, the pain or pleasure, health or harm, created by the circumstances presented to him by his senses. In other words, merely the act of seeing whether or not rocks float presupposes transcendent values. A man to whom life, pleasure, or goodness of some sort meant nothing would not look to see whether rocks floated; he has no reason to open his eyes or trigger a single brain cell. Even a man with a rock tied around his neck on a high bridge only looks to see if rocks float because he seeks the good the suicide falsely promises him, an end to pain. He is still making a valuation in a way that inanimate objects do not.

By self-evident I mean that even one who disputes them tacitly assumes them in order to dispute them. A man who argues (as Nietzsche, or Sartre) that there is no truth, and no duty to be truthful, assumes that his audience will regard his statements as meant in earnest, i.e. truthful; and assumes his audience will react as a truthful man would, that is, with enough intellectual honesty to embrace an unpleasing truth once it is proved true.

I am not now and have never been a radical empiricist. A reasonable empiricist says that empirical statements are subject to empirical verification; but a radical empiricist says that all statements are subject to empirical verification. Marx and Bertrand Russell fall into the radical category. Obviously the statement “all statements no subject to empirical verification are meaningless” is not verifiable empirically, since no man has heard all statements, and since the presence or absence of the property “subject to empirical verification” is a matter of logic, not something you can see with you eye or touch with your hand.

This rather simple idea (namely, that empirical science depends on metaphysical underpinnings, and that those underpinnings are not themselves scientific) has caused all the furor of modern philosophy since the days of Hume. Hume concluded that since Cause and Effect could not be seen or smelled, its existence was open to doubt. Kant, in this rare case, was correct, when he challenged Hume’s conclusion: Kant said the category of Cause and Effect was a necessary and inescapable premise, an axiom without which empirical reasoning could not take place.

My philosophy, back when I was an atheist, eschewed the idea of self-sacrifice, but accept the idea of assessing risks and rewards, and of being willing to suffer current risk for future gain, or of combining with other men in like danger to myself, to avert, with some loss (perhaps my own) a danger or an enemy which otherwise would overwhelm us all singly. Again, this was merely logic. It was also the philosophy of a young, unmarried man, without kids. My current moral system has mystical and transcendental elements, but the core bedrock principles are the same. Purely self-sacrificing actions can be justified in the Christian system, which in the rational atheist universe simply make no sense.

An act of self-sacrifice is a perfect example. To the atheist, self-sacrifice goes above and beyond the call of duty, or of self-interest rightly understood. There is no invisible world to the atheist, no Providence which uses our good works to perform the Will of God, who is the Love that creates and sustains the universe. To the atheist, there is not even a Brotherhood of Man, such as the noble pagans, the Stoics and Neoplatonists, imagined. One thing I actually admire about Christianity is that one can be good for reasons numbered anywhere up or down the Kohlberg scale of moral development, and still be justified within the Christian system. Stoicism is a religion for aristocrats; whereas Christians can be illiterate barbarians from Gaul or refined matrons or Byzantium, and still be equally Christian. Back in my atheist days, I thought that When an article of faith contradicts common sense, the atheist sees the believer jettison common sense. What do I think of that now?

“Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom ... ”

The sentiment is still true to a degree: there is no earthly reason to pursue anything other than one’s own self-interest rightly understood, and only such loves as love you in return. By all earthly wisdom, the love of heaven is folly. And yet look at how large heaven is, how ample the night sky. What is this except for the flourish of an author’s pen, telling us how great is His love, even in the midst of our despair?

The sentiment, to a degree, is simply false. If you read my online confession, you know that my hatred of Christianity eroded, once I began to see the Christian world-view (which, at that time, I still rejected as literally false), was more mature and seasoned in wisdom than the simple pessimism or simple optimism of my fellow humanist freethinkers. Do you know what stupid ideas some of these people have? It is as if they come from Mars, and have no notion, no hint, of how we conduct are affairs on Earth. Christianity is an old, old tree with deep roots. The Church knows how man act, what the strengths and weaknesses are, what the temptations and passions of real men are, and she has evolved (or been guided by the Spirit) to erect defenses reasonable to the task at hand. Humanists deal with theoretical men, cardboard cutouts, like homo oeconomicus, the man of pure reason, or the “New Man” of the soviets, of the “Superman” of Nietzsche. Ayn Rand’s John Galt is simply the prelapsarian man: by his own confession, he is the Adam untouched by original sin. In her novel, he is without greed or sloth or envy, and he is moved by pure reason. Well, were we all such as he, we could conduct our lives without laws or need of laws, as angels do, and governments that took no notice of the public decency would indeed be the norm. It is upon such flimsy, two-dimensional understanding of men and the world that the humanists build their wisdom. Whatever their simplistic and untested theories promote, is what they call wise.

If we do not look like fools to the atheists, we are doing something wrong.