Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Hitting Philosophical Bedrock with the Shovel of a Stupid Question

Yesterday I became embroiled in a debate of sorts about meaning, purpose, and value with apologist Tom Gilson of ThinkingChristian.net.

Presumably in response to the points I was making, Tom replied to me on Twitter linking his 2012 blog post: What Made This Dust Into a Meaning-Maker?

That is what I'd like to respond to here. 

In the article, Tom makes the same move that is made by very many apologists, which to quote Sam Harris "hits philosophical bedrock with the shovel of a stupid question." 

Here's the gist of what Tom asks:

"We all agree we came from the dust. What made this dust into a meaning-maker, “objective” or otherwise? What makes meaning mean anything?"

First let me answer Tom's question:  What makes us, a collection of material into a meaning maker?

Our minds. Our very physical, brain-dependent minds.

The point is that we are not just material, we are a very specific and complex arrangement of material that eventually gives rise to an emergent phenomenon that we call a mind.  It is with these minds that we can love, feel happiness, feel pain, do philosophy, do calculus, have desires, have relationships, and a host of other things.

That is what gives us meaning. The fact that our mental life is temporally limited - that it is scarce, is what gives it value.  That's a point that could be expounded upon at length, but that's not what I want to dwell on here.

Tom's response, presumably, is to ask why that is relevant or to mock it as he does in the article: "How small. How sad." 

Maybe I'm being too pessimistic about Tom's response, so I will imagine him giving the only other coherent response I can think of: Perhaps he may grant that this is a necessary condition for meaning, but would then claim that it is not sufficient.

This leads me to expound on exactly why this is an example of "hitting philosophical bedrock with the shovel of a stupid question."

Once one asks the question: "What makes meaning mean anything?"you can either reject or accept the answer.  What you can't do is accept it as necessary but not sufficient, because the follow up question "why is that not sufficient?" has no answer.

There's no non-question begging answer to the question "But why think that is sufficient to give us meaning?"

An atheist can pose exactly the same question to the theist: "Why does god inherently have value?" Or  "Why do humans have meaning/value just because they were created by a god?" Because we have a soul? Because we were created in god's image? "Why should we value a soul or being created in god's image?"

Why? Why? Why?

There isn't an answer, because one can always continually question why any given explanation gives us value.  At some point, we simply reach an answer that we accept as the terminus.

That is what I mean by philosophical bedrock.  The continued question "why is that sufficient?" is the shovel.

The End of the Discussion?

Perhaps you may accept this state of affairs, but conclude that the theist and the atheist are on equal footing when it comes to the question of meaning, purpose, and value. Each of us gives our own definition, and neither of us can assail what the other accepts as a terminus without resorting to pointless mockery.

For the purposes of merely countering the apologetic argument from meaning and purpose, we could simply end here and the argument would be refuted.

However, I do think the atheist can go a bit further in actually attacking the specific theistic answer apologists want to give to this philosophical question.  It's important to point out that even if you feel I'm wrong in what I go into below, it does nothing to save the argument from meaning, value, and purpose.

Mere Assertions

Apologists like Tom are fond of saying that  meaning, purpose, and value come from a god, because that's inherent to their definition of "god", to quote Tom:

"God is defined as necessary being, having purpose, mind, will, holiness of character, power, justice, and so on."

The problem with this compared to a naturalistic answer like the one I gave is two fold.

First, it doesn't actually explain anything. It merely asserts that god is has these things. Apologists are not doing any actual work with the concept.

Second, it presupposes what it wants to prove.  Metaphysically speaking, you're just stating that "purpose" (or meaning, or value) is ontologically equivalent to god in much the same way that "water" is ontologically equivalent to H2O.  Why in the world, in an argument you want to use to convince non-theists of your position, would you base it on definitions that we wouldn't accept at the outset.

To say that we must have the debate on only the theists terms is to quite literally beg the question in favor of theism.

Conversely, the naturalistic answer I gave actually explains that a mind, or more specifically "the ability to value something at all" is itself the standard of what makes certain kinds of things inherently valuable.  Or rather, something anyone who can value anything must recognize as the standard of value.

This answer does not presuppose atheism or naturalism.  One can hold this standard and still be a theist, because presumably any god would have a mind and as such the ability to value something.

On Mockery

I'd hope I don't have to point out that ad hominem attacks on a position don't constitute a valid counter argument.  The idea that a naturalists conception of value is "too small" is almost laughable.  Take a look at the universe. We are "small".

In what way does size have any bearing on value?

A star is orders of magnitudes larger than I am, yet I am able to appreciate, or value, the existence of the sun where as it can not do the same for me or anything else for that matter.

One of the most meaningful things in my life was 6lbs 5oz when it came into the world.  She may be made from the same stardust I am, but that doesn't make the arrangement of that stardust any less special to me.  Cosmically speaking, everything I value is quite very small, but that doesn't diminish it's value to me in any way.  You can not tell me that this is somehow sad, because I am not sad.

In the end, my life has meaning because I give myself that meaning. To say that god can do this and other beings can't is to engage in special pleading.

No comments:

Post a Comment