How Not to Define ‘Atheism’

The Maverick Philosopher is a great blog (far better than mine) and this article, in particular, is very interesting . . .

“Note first that atheism cannot be identified with the lack of theistic belief, i.e., the mere absence of the belief that God or a god exists, for that would imply that cabbages and tire irons are atheists.  Note second that it won’t do to say that atheism is the lack of theistic belief in persons, for there are persons incapable of forming beliefs.  Charitably interpreted, then, the idea must be that atheism is the lack of theistic belief in persons capable of forming and maintaining beliefs . . . KEEP READING . . .”

Introducing . . . “Facebook” for Nerds!

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I recently joined “Facebook” for nerds (a.k.a Academia.edu)! I’ll be sharing my academic work in philosophy on my profile there. So, if you have nothing to do today and are feeling slightly nerdier than usual, I strongly recommend you take a look.

I uploaded the first draft of a paper I’m working on entitled Logicism, William Rowe, and the Mystery of Existence. Here’s the introduction to wet your appetite (the full paper can be viewed or downloaded as a PDF on the link below):

Why is there something rather than nothing? Theism is often put forth as an answer tothis question but is by no means the consensus view. One major opponent to the theistiexplanation is William Rowe who not only contends that theism is unable to explain the existence of contingent states of affairs, but concludes it is impossible to provide an answer. In so arguing, Rowe appears to have undermined the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR).
In this essay I suggest Rowe is guilty of logicism; i.e., employing logic to answer what is fundamentally a metaphysical question (Gilson, p8-16). More pointedly, I argue that Rowe has incorrectly formulated the theistic solution to the mystery of existence. Rowe expresses the mode of God’s existence in the form of modality De Dicto when theist’s express the mode ofGod’s existence in the form of modality De Re. By drawing attention to this error I hope to show (1) we need not abandon PSR and (2) theism can explain why there is something rather than nothing.
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Evolution and Reason with G. K. Chesterton

“Evolution is either an innocent scientific description of how certain earthly things came about; or, if it is anything more than this, it is an attack upon thought itself. If evolution destroys anything, it does not destroy religion but rationalism. If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly – especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time. But if it means anything more, it means that there is no such thing as an ape to change, and no such thing as a man for him to change into. It means that there is no such thing as a thing. At best, there is only one thing, and that is a flux of everything and anything. This is an attack not upon faith, but upon the mind; you cannot think if there are no things to think about.”

Meghan Sullivan and Trent Dougherty on the Problem of Evil

In the wake of Stephen Fry’s viral video, in which he passionately condemns God for apparently doing nothing to prevent the existence of gratuitous evil, there has been renewed popular interest in what philosopher’s call the problem of evil.

In response to this, I provided a reading list for those interested in studying the issue in greater depth.

For those seeking more resources, this video, produced by the Center for the Philosophy of Religion at Notre Dame, is excellent.  It features two philosopher’s–Meghan Sullivan and Trent Dougherty–in a roundtable discussion on the primary challenges posed by the problem of evil for Classical Theists:

The Utter Meaninglessness of Life: A Response to Neil Levy

 

Theistic philosophers often argue that the naturalistic worldview renders life completely meaningless (Craig, 1994, p57-75).  On their understanding, objective meaning can only be derived from a transcendent–i.e., supernatural–source.  But many philosophers question this assumption.

One such philosopher is Neil Levy who believes we can find meaning in life and that we can do so within a, “thoroughly naturalistic framework” (Levy, 2005, p180).  According to him, there are superlatively meaningful activities or projects–e.g., the pursuit of truth or justice or beauty–that, once engaged in, make life truly and deeply meaningful.

In this essay I argue that Levy’s projects fail to confer meaning to life.  In section one I discuss the nature of a meaningful life from the naturalistic perspective–specifically addressing the notion of meaning-conferring activities.  In the second section, I present two major challenges to the naturalistic conception of meaningful activities: the problem of circularity and Mill’s Dilemma.  In part three I explain how Levy attempts to overcome these challenges through his notion of projects.  Finally, in section four I show that Levy’s projects fail to overcome the challenges.  In so doing I demonstrate that, given naturalism, life is utterly meaningless.

The Nature of a Meaningful Life

The characteristic picture of a meaningless life is that of a farmer, “who grows more corn to feed more hogs to buy more land to grow more corn to feed more hogs” (Levy, p178).  Although the farmer is achieving concrete goals–i.e., feeding hogs and growing corn–his life is pointless because he is not engaged in any activities beyond his own subjective self-interested existence.  His life is, thus, a circular chain of events and manifestly insignificant.

Consequentially, the majority of naturalistic philosophers agree: if there is any hope of finding meaning we must escape the banality, pointlessness, and circularity of a life like that of the farmer envisioned above.  We must orientate our lives around activities which promote goods beyond the circle (Levy, p179).

Examples of such meaning-conferring activities often include things like science, art, sports, food, or family.  Such activities, it is argued, engage us with something that, “transcends our-selves, with goods which are not merely subjective but (at least) intersubjective” (Levy, p180).  In other words, they engage us with goods that are beneficial to all and outstrip mundane activities that merely maintain our existence.

Two Challenges

Levy notes, however, that there are two substantial challenges to this construal of meaning.  The first is that many of the alleged meaning conferring activities only appear to escape the problem of circularity that plagues the life of the farmer.  Consider the example of investing in your family.  Imagine two parents who find meaning in rearing their children so that they can grow up and start families of their own to find meaning in rearing their children, etc. A life dedicated to the family is no less circular than the life of the farmer.  As Levy puts it, “this account of meaning seems merely to substitute a larger circle for a smaller” (Levi, p180).

The second obstacle facing this account of meaning we shall call “Mill’s Dilemma”–so named after the famous ethicist and political philosopher to which it is attributed.  It points out that meaning conferring activities lose their meaning when the aim of the activity has been reached.  For example, if you dedicate your life to creating a just society and this goal is realised you will have nothing left to live for (assuming it was the only meaningful activity you were engaged in). One can just as easily imagine having successfully attained every meaningful goal they had striven for.  With no more meaningful activities to engage in, life would be pointless.

But suppose, in an effort to escape the dilemma, we argue that our goals are inherently unrealisable–that they can never be reached.  This, too, is problematic because making progress at achieving our goals is impossible if our goals are inherently unachievable.  Imagine if, no matter how hard you worked, you never progressed towards generating a more just society.  Imagine if, as a matter of principle, it was impossible to achieve a just society.  Would such an activity still be meaningful?  Clearly, it would not (Levy, p182).

Levy’s Solution

In spite of these obstacles, Levy maintains there are activities, or projects (as he terms it), that avoid both the trap of circularity and escape Mill’s Dilemma (Levi, p184).  Such projects are superlatively meaningful, because they are highly valuable pursuits that promote goods beyond themselves and thus transcend the charge of circularity.  They are also open-ended–i.e., they have no fixed goals–and thus avoid the trap of Mill’s Dilemma.  As Levy states it:

There are, I shall suggest, valuable activities which are inherently open-ended – not because they aim for a goal that cannot be achieved, but because the goal they pursue is not fixed prior to the activity itself. Instead, the goal is gradually defined and more precisely specified in the course of its pursuit, so that the end of the activity is always itself one of its stakes (Levy, p185).

So, according to Levy, the pursuit of justice would qualify as a project as long as we understand that the end or goal or meaning of justice is something that progresses and changes over time.  There is no fixed universal idea of justice that, once realised, ends our pursuit.  Rather, the idea of justice evolves as we pursue it.  We, therefore, progress toward our goals without ever achieving them.  Not because the goals are inherently unrealisable, but, because the goals are not fixed.  As Levy puts it, “the ends of superlatively meaningful activities cannot be achieved, because as the activities evolve, so the ends at which they aim alter and are refined” (Levy, p186).

Other examples of projects would be the pursuit of knowledge or truth, the pursuit of beauty, and the pursuit of the good.  According to Levy these are all open-ended activities of tremendous value–the pursuit of which confers real meaning to life.

An Ever Expanding Circle

At a glance, Levy’s projects appear to have overcome both the problem of circularity and Mill’s Dilemma.  Projects seem to take us beyond our-selves and are inherently valuable; thus they transcend the banality of the farmers life.  Continuous progress seems feasible in the pursuit of a project while a final completion does not.  So, it appears Mill’s Dilemma is safely avoided (Levy, p184).  But, do projects stand upon closer evaluation?  To find out we must first consider the nature of progress.

Progress necessarily requires an end or standard. It is impossible to move forward, to advance, to make headway, toward an undefined goal.  To see that this is true, consider the following example.  Professor Yujin informs his class at the beginning of the semester that the goal of the module is not based upon any fixed criteria.  Rather, he says, the aim of the class is undefined; as class activities evolve the ends at which they aim will be altered and refined.  Furthermore, he explains that it will not be possible to achieve a final grade because the criteria for measuring success is open-ended.  Given Yujin’s guidelines, or lack thereof, it would be impossible to make headway in his class.  To be sure, one would move, like a canoe swept along down a stream that never terminates, but they would not progress.  For there is nothing to progress to; no destination as it were.

The same is true of Levy’s projects.  If the pursuit of beauty is open-ended–if it has no fixed goal–it is inconceivable that one engaged in such an activity could make progress.  Like Yujin’s directionless class one would have no basis by which to judge whether they were closer to achieving their goals or not.  Like a child assigned an open-ended list of chores, their task would never end:

Child: “Mother I’ve put away my toys, have I finished my chores?”

Mother: “Well done! But did you make your bed?”

Child: “Mother I’ve made my bed, now have I finished my chores?”

Mother: “Good job, but did you tidy your little sisters room?”

Child: “Mother I’ve I’ve tidied her room, now have I finished my chores?”

Mother: “Excellent, but did you mop the bathroom floor?

Levy’s projects, like this child’s open-ended list of chores, are based upon contingent factors which are constantly in flux.  One does not progress while engaged in them; one simply acts.

This, of course, brings us right back to the same dilemma Levy was attempting to avoid.  Namely, it renders projects meaningless because continuous progress, in fact progress of any kind, is inherently impossible.  But this is only the first problem.  The second problem is far worse.

The person engaged in one of Levy’s open-ended projects, while not progressing, is moving from one goal to the next as they evolve.  As I previously stated, they are like a canoe swept along down a stream that never terminates.  It would be a mistake, however, to imagine this stream extended indefinitely in either direction like a geometric line. The stream is not infinite–for the world in which we engage in projects is finite.  Circumscribed and limited as it is, the stream never terminates because it follows a circular path.

Thus, we pursue a just society, so that our children might pursue a revised conception of a just society, so that our grandchildren might pursue a revision of the revision, etc.  Eventually, given enough time, future generations embrace the same conception of justice that we did.  For there is not an indefinite number of ways to conceive of a just society.  As a wise man once said, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun” (RSV Ecclesiastes 1:9).

Another example would be the evolution of metaphysics.  The Platonists and Aristotelians speak of substance, the Continental Rationalists redefine substance,  the British Empiricists question the notion of substance, the Postmoderns and Logical Positivists deny the existence of substance, Analytic Philosophers destroy Logical Positivism and Postmodernism, and the Neo-Aristotelians bring back the ancient notion of substance.  Even philosophical pursuits, which Levy claims are, “paradigmatically valuable activities,” become regressively circular.

There are only a finite number of memes or ideas to be passed around from generation to generation as we pursue projects.  The pursuit of beauty can only be redefined so many times.  Inevitably the same memes will resurface and there is no transcendent reality we can embrace to break the cycle.  Levy’s solution simply trades a smaller circle for a larger one.  The person pursuing projects is living as meaningless a life as the farmer growing corn to feed hogs to buy land to grow more corn.

Conclusion

Neil Levy believes his conception of projects provides an escape from the problem of circularity and the challenge of Mill’s Dilemma that plague naturalistic attempts at finding meaning.  I have demonstrated, however, that projects fail to do so.  Because the goal of a project is open-ended it is inherently impossible to make progress because progress requires fixed goals by which we can measure success.  Our inability to progress coupled with the impossibility of success renders projects meaningless.  Furthermore, projects are regressively circular and, thus, ultimately pointless.  There are, therefore, no superlatively meaningful activities given naturalism.  Life is utterly meaningless.

References

Craig, W. (1994). Reasonable faith. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway      Books.

Levy, N. (2005). Downshifting and meaning in life. Ratio, 18(2), pp.176-189.

 

 

 

Stephen Fry and the Problem of Evil

Stephen Fry’s inflammatory comments regarding the existence of God in the face of gratuitous evil have rekindled popular interest in what philosopher’s call the problem of evil.

Although his remarks were informal–an intense emotional reaction to the horror of natural evil–and not a rigorous philosophical argument, they obviously resinate with many people.

As well they should.

The fact is, the overwhelming amount of gratuitous evil in the world should cause us all to feel uneasy; it should elicit doubt in the heart of any religious believer, and incite moral outrage.  In short, evil should have a profound  emotional impact on all of us.

Be that as it may, the problem of evil is  not merely an emotional subjective experience.  It is not something we must only react to impulsively (although in times of great pain and suffering this is what certainly happens).

In times of leisure and quite reflection, it is a problem we can engage with our minds; that we can think about critically and make sound judgements on.  For thousands of years, philosopher’s have done just that.

In fact, the existence of gratuitous natural evil, which has elicited such a strong reaction in Stephen Fry, has been leveled against Theism in the form of a powerful argument known in the literature as the Evidential Problem of Evil.

It is not my intention, at this time, to discuss this argument in any detail; but, rather, to point you to those philosopher’s who do.  To that end, I’ve compiled a short list of  classic and contemporary works on this profound topic:

The Brother’s Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky:

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The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis 

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The Problem of Evil: A Reader compiled by Mark Larrimore.

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The Evidential Argument from Evil compiled by Daniel Howard-Snyder

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God and Evil: The Case for God in a World Filled with Pain compiled by Chad Meister and James K. Drew Jr.

godandevil

 

Thinking With the Wrong Head or, Richard Dawkins on Altruism

Here’s a satire I recently published on The Christian Watershed …

As many of you are well aware, the existence of genuine love or altruism is often leveled against the naturalistic worldview as evidence of its implausibility.  But those who buy into such pathetic argumentation simply don’t understand the richness of the Darwinian perspective.   You may be surprised to learn that the New Atheists, especially Richard Dawkins, are actually romantics at heart.  I dare say that the conception of altruism explicated so eloquently in his acclaimed work The God Delusion would move even the hardest of hearts to start composing Shakespearean sonnets! 

Like many great romantics, Dawkins begins his discourse on love with a rousing passage on the ontological foundation of love itself:       
“The most obvious way in which genes ensure their own ‘selfish’ survival relative to other genes is by programming individual organism to be selfish.  There are indeed many circumstances in which survival of…

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The Teacher

Here’s another sneak peak of The Diary of a Despairing . . . I Mean Aspiring Author.  You can find the first two installments here and here.  Please keep in mind that this is only the first draft.


 

The Teacher

Growing up in a devout Christian family I heard the stories of the great biblical heroes numerous times and could recite most of them by heart.  It wasn’t until I was twelve, however, that I dedicated time to personally studying Sacred Scripture.  Naturally, I was immediately drawn to the more exotic, and often overlooked, books; the “black sheep” of the canon.  The first to grab my attention was Ecclesiastes, in which, to my great dismay, I read the following passage for the first time:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”

says the Teacher.

“Utterly meaningless!

Everything is meaningless.”

What do people gain from all their labors

at which they toil under the sun?

 Generations come and generations go,

but the earth remains forever.

 The sun rises and the sun sets,

and hurries back to where it rises.

The wind blows to the south

and turns to the north;

round and round it goes,

ever returning on its course.

All streams flow into the sea,

yet the sea is never full.

To the place the streams come from,

there they return again.

All things are wearisome,

more than one can say.

The eye never has enough of seeing,

nor the ear its fill of hearing.

What has been will be again,

what has been done will be done again;

there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there anything of which one can say,

“Look! This is something new”?

It was here already, long ago;

it was here before our time.

No one remembers the former generations,

and even those yet to come

will not be remembered

by those who follow them.

I had never read anything so dismal, despairing, and disturbing in my life.  Don’t get me wrong, it was not as if this passage introduced me to concepts entirely foreign to my experience.  To the contrary, I found the words of the Teacher disturbing precisely because they resonated with intuitions buried in the far reaches of my soul.  They conjured impressions of reality I had held since my childhood but never wanted to face.  They rekindled the sense of dread and futility engendered by the swamp; feelings which seemed incongruent with the cheerful Christian worldview so tenderly nurtured by my parents.

“I don’t understand this,” I thought, “Perhaps it’ll make more sense as I continue reading . . .” I pressed on through several more chapters hoping for better results but to no avail.  In fact, things got worse:    “Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals,” proclaims the Teacher, “the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless.  All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.”  This was the last straw!  I slammed my bible shut and stormed downstairs to my father who sat unawares in the den.  “What’s his problem?” I exclaimed in frustration, “why is this even in the Bible?”

Somewhat taken aback by my outburst, my father responded: “Josh . . . what are you talking about?”  Realizing he hadn’t the faintest clue what I was ranting  about, I took a deep breath and proceeded to voice my dissatisfaction with the Teacher.  He listened patiently for several minutes and when, at last, I finished my diatribe he asked, “Have you finished reading it?”  Sheepishly I responded, “Well . . . no.”  “Read the whole thing,” he said, “then you’ll understand.”

This was not the answer I was looking for.  Begrudgingly I walked back upstairs, picked up my Bible, and pressed forward.  After reading the book all the way through . . . I still didn’t understand.  The Teacher left too many questions unanswered.  The resolution at the end, to “fear God and obey His commandments,” offered no consolation.  I needed things to be black and white—clear and simple.  The Teacher’s ideas were too discordant; too nebulous; too real.  I wasn’t prepared to accept an existence devoid of meaning—yet, this is the world presented by the Teacher; a cold, fleeting, impersonal, purposeless, unjust, world, full of uncertainty.

As most of us do, however, I set these troubling thoughts aside and retreated back into the world of fantasy.  I played video games, read Star War’s novels, and watched endless hours of T.V.  But, one can only drown the nihilism out for so long . . .

 An Encounter With Death

The one thing we can be absolutely sure of in this life is that everything living will die.  Death surrounds us–it haunts us every second of every day–relentlessly pursuing us into the grave.  At the very moment of our conception we begin our slow decent into dissolution and, in spite of all our efforts, there is nothing we can do to stop this from taking place.  We have tried and shall continue to try—but to no avail.  There is no escape from our temporality; from our profound limitedness.

Nevertheless, to dwell upon our finitude and impermanence – which death so robustly exemplifies – leads us quickly into the abyss of despair.  And, despair, true despair, is incredibly unpopular in the West. This is one of the reasons we desensitize ourselves, by means of video games, movies, and other such contrivances, from the reality of death.  We do this by transforming it into entertainment; by inoculating ourselves from the absurdity and pointlessness it engenders.  We, as a society, are enamored by the mere “shadow” of death – to borrow from Plato’s famous analogy of the cave – which seems less frightening and, at times, even pleasurable.  We dare not turn our gaze and face the reality which would be too much to bear.  Our obsession with the mere idea of death allows us to transform it into something enjoyable or thrilling (e.g., Mortal Combat) or even sexually arousing (e.g.,Twilight).  Hence, as a matter of profound irony, death has become the ideal distraction from death.  That is, until the real thing is unwillingly thrust upon us.

I entertained mere phantasms of death until it slowly took my friend Travis . . .

Some Thoughts On Don Juanism

What is Don Juanism?  It is, perhaps, most easily expressed by this simple Latin phrase made famous by the film Dead Poets Society: “carpe diem!” or “seize the day!”  Loosely defined, it describes a certain disposition or attitude toward life which is explained by the French existentialist Albert Camus in his influential book The Myth of Sisyphus.

According to Camus, Don Juanism is not a system or a formula but a general outline suggesting a way in which the “absurd man” might proceed in a world devoid of intrinsic meaning or value.  Who is the “absurd man” you ask?  The man who acknowledges the world is meaningless—and, that there is no hope of a life after death—yet, seeks to ascribe or, at least, search for meaning anyway.    The absurd man, when faced with the dilemma of nihilism, may choose (following the manner of that famous…

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