Monday, 10 December 2012

Absolute Meaning (Guest Post)

Guest Post by D. Nesher 

Thanks Shilton for hosting the post – this is something I’ve wanted to write about for a while now, if only to organise my own thoughts more coherently.

I imagine that the feeling of an absence of meaning is fairly common amongst people who are coming to/ have come to the conclusion that they can’t intellectually buy in to the whole theistic organised religion thing. Indeed, at least in my experience, the “argument from meaning” (If there is no God then there is no meaning) is often raised by theists and those who are pro-religion, in discussions and debates.

Obviously this argument is fallacious; for starters,wanting there to be meaning is not sufficient criteria for that actually being the case. Of equal importance is the fact that “meaning” is subjective, and it is arrogant and rude to reject an individual’s claim that simply wanting to be a better person/raise kids/watch large amounts of TV grants meaning to his or her life.

Having said that, it is difficult to deny the fact that theism and organised religion ostensibly make a case for what can be described as “absolute” meaning, something that is a lot harder (though I suppose not impossible) to defend from a sceptical outlook.

In my own life, this perceived lack of “absolute” meaning has not been excessively troubling. While it may be true that I find it hard to argue against complete moral relativism or pessimistic nihilism from a reasoned and philosophical position, as a standard-issue human being I am equipped with a conscience, emotions such as sympathy and empathy, and a drive for success and advancement, and it is these things that dictate my day-to-day thoughts and behaviour, not the conclusions of my navel-gazing. I imagine that this slight discord between actual philosophical beliefs and normative integration into the world constitutes a part of themodus Vivendi of the average secular-minded person.

However, despite not being particularly bothered by this issue in a deep way, I have recently been questioning the notion of “absolute” meaning, wondering whether it can exist at all. To explain what I am driving at, I will quote a joke that I heard about a year ago that made a profound impression on me. The joke was said on the TV show, the Colbert Report, by Stephen Colbert (I am not sure if the joke is his own or if he was quoting it), and it is as follows:
 “OK. So a guy commits suicide. And he goes to heaven, he gets to heaven.And God greets him there, and the guy said, "I'm so surprised I'm here. First of all, I thought there was no God. Second of all, I thought if you killed yourself, you know, you were damned forever."God said, "You know, that's a complicated issue. Everybody at least thinks about ending it, you know, killing themselves at some point." And God says, "Even I've thought of it."The guy said, "Can I ask, why didn't you do it?"And God said, "What if this is all there is?"
 At the time I found the joke funny and thought-provoking, but I have only recently pondered the point it raises more deeply.  What makes meaning that ends with God and his commands “absolute”? Like an annoying kid (and I was that annoying kid), you can just keep asking “why?” – “OK. This is what God himself wants me to do..... but why? Now what? Why does God want that? What is the point of God?”.  You end up with an infinite regress situation which is, to my mind, reminiscent of the debate between those theologians who state that God must exist because of the issue of first cause, and those who reply that they have just created more problems because hey – who created God? Essentially people can call meaning that ends with God “absolute” if they want, but this is a semantic issue, and they haven’t really answered anything, they’ve merely pushed the question to a level slightly further removed from our everyday plane of existence.

Now I realise that I haven’t invented  the wheel here, but to my mind this whole line of thinking just somewhat validated the conclusions I have reached about life, and also made it just that much easier to live with the fact that I have to create my own meaning.  Previously I had a certain amount of angst about the fact that I can no longer bask in the simplicity of “absolute” meaning. Now, under my new paradigm, I realise that “absolute” meaning is a chimera, an impossible dream that is equally unavailable to the heretic and the devout believer alike.

I would love to hear other people’s opinion on the issue of meaning in general, and also critiques of my reasoning from those more philosophically knowledgeable than myself.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Missing the Point

Recently Yoram Hazony wrote an OpEd for the NY times which has been generating a considerable amount of discussion on the web. He basically says that the God of the Bible is not perfect is very human and maybe we should stop thinking about him so philosophically as some kind of Maimonidean "perfect being". So far I can't really argue with him. The God of the Bible is not omnipotent omniscient etc. He changes his mind, doesn't know the future gets mad, jealous, sad etc. Historically we know that Jews have not always thought of God as perfect.

However for some reason Hazony seems to think that this return to a simpler God from a simpler time provides some sort of rejoinder to the new atheist movement. As he points out such a conception solves the philosophical problem of evil. If God isn't perfect he can make mistakes and can do evil things.

However this is a very simplistic understanding of atheism. To reduce the entire challenge of atheism to the problem of evil and minor problems of philosophical coherence. These arguments are definitely employed by atheists (IMO they shouldn't be but that's another story) but new atheism amounts to a lot more then just this.

At the end of the day it all boils down to proof. Atheists don't believe in God mainly cuz he cannot be proven not because he is just too incoherent to understand. And bad news for Hazony, you can't prove an imperfect God any more than you can prove a perfect God. (Hell, if anything an imperfect God is harder to prove, because then a bunch of theistic philosophical arguments like the ontological argument for example are out the window).

Hazony if anything has made a minor dent in some tangential atheist arguments. That's about it. Maybe that's all he intended to do but I don't think it changes much about God and his nonexistence.