Monday, July 23, 2012

Children of the Void




"We, peopling the void air, make gods to whom we impute the ills we
ought to bear."

Matthew Arnold.

It is all in Lucretius, Matthew Arnold said when he encountered
Darwin's Theory of Evolution.  More completely he said, in a letter 'I
cannot understand why you scientific people make such a fuss about
Darwin. Why, it's all in Lucretius!' Atheism and philosophical
materialism have a long and proud history. A legacy, which Zizek
reminds us, we must defend and celebrate.

I am not sure if Zizek quoted Hume correctly in his article published in the New York Times,
as I was not able to find the exact quote, but I must admit I did not look very hard nor for
 very long. Regardless of the accuracy as to who said what in what context and the provenance
of the quote it is a good one. "David Hume, a believer, made this point in a very poignant way,
when he wrote that the only way to show true respect for God is to actmorally while ignoring God's existence." As an atheist and a materialist I not only ignore the existence of any God, although this
is a good default position, I actively reject the existence of God.

This simple skeptical quote from Hume, who is considered the greatest
of English philosophers, and like many great Englishmen, he was
actually not English, made me think. And it shows how atheists are
better than Christians. Atheists are often accused of having a bleak
and soulless world view, and living in a lonely and dying universe,
full of darkness and the cold wind of outer space, I do not deny this
for a minute. The universe is dark and lonely, and we live a tiny
sliver of a small fraction for a fabulously brief time, on a tiny mote
circling a mediocre sun. Nature is immense and we are so very very
small. Puny even.

But let us, as a thought experiment, turn this idea around. For to me
this idea of a dark soulless universe should be the basis for a
atheist morality. The universe is some 14 billion years old, and is
expanding at a furious rate. There is no god, and we are all
alone. The children of the void.  The chances of any one of us even
being born are fantastic. And we only get one trip, and when it ends
we go back into the void, at best our bits are recycled and without a
faint gasp the universe carries on with it's serene disinterest.

What does this mean, each of us a unique fantastic accident? To me,
and I am but one small thin voice beneath pleasing city towers, amid
the busy hum of men, this means only one thing. To me this leads to a
moral position that requires no god, no fear of punishment or
reward. It is simply that we must not harm other people. All people
are unique and equal, and each life is a miracle never to be repeated
again even if the universe turns and cools for another 14 billion
years.

How often do we hear the belligerent non-combatants spew out
nauseating cliches such as 'Shoot them all, let God sort 'em out.' This
would not be a possible option for a through going materialist
position, as there is neither an after life, nor is there a sublime
all forgiving god to sort out any mistakes. There is no justice after
death.

Morality is then based on the idea that each human is unique and there
is no recovery from a mistaken death. In more traditional words this
means simply the golden rule, 'do unto others, as you would have them
do unto you.'

This seems to be no more than a petty truism, and it very well may be,
but it is as close to a universal ideal that you are likely to come
across.

"Zi Gong asked, saying, 'Is there one word that may serve as a rule of
practice for all one's life?' The Master said, 'Is not RECIPROCITY
such a word?'" The Master being Confucius

"Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing." Thales

"Regard your neighbour's gain as your own gain, and your neighbour's
loss as your own loss." T'ai Shang Kan Ying P'ien

From Christians to Confucians to ancient Greek natural philosophers to
Buddhist monks to atheists, this idea cuts across cultures and time.
As simple and seemingly straight forward as this idea may be, it
raises as many questions as it solves. What of the convicted criminal?
If the judge would not like to go to jail, how could she send the law breaker
to jail? Interesting as this dilemma is, this is an argument we should
hold off for another time.

This rule of performing every act as if you wish it to be a universal
truth, does not require any higher power, it does not require a system
of reward and punishment. Most importantly, as Confucius pointed out
it has the value of reciprocity.

Many commentators have pointed out various aspects of human life that
set us apart from animals, some include language, other tool making,
still others our control of fire, our ability to laugh or alternately
our ability to feel shame. All of these are true, and as one sided
views are both correct and incorrect. For as far as reciprocity is
defined as an aspect of human life, we can say that reciprocity is an
aspect that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Even
though other creatures are social humans seem to have deeper and more
complex mutual relations. Again this will open up another theatre of
argument, we should leave such arguments for another day.

The rule of being excellent to one another lies at the heart of all
things human, the fact that we are social animals, the fact that to
survive in this hostile, cold, dark, lonely universe we are compelled
to come together and work together. This can be seen in the world we
have built and more intimately in our building of families and the
raising of children, the next generation. It seems as a truism to me
that if we maintained a mutually hostile and suspicious attitude to
one another we would still be living in caves and eating grubs and raw
meat. There would be too much for any one person, or family to cope
with, and life would be nasty, brutish and short.

So the atheist is more moral than the theist as she wants to do the
right thing, because she knows it to be the right thing to do, and
seeks not to go to heaven, nor to avoid hell, nor to please a powerful
supernatural force. And this arises from the understanding the
universe is a cold uncaring place, that we live in an absurd world
with death as the only and universal prize given to all of us,
regardless of how successful or beautiful or wonderful a person may
be. The president and the pope and the poorest, most marginalised all
come into the world naked and all die frightened and alone. But in
that one bright shining moment with the sun and the wind upon your
cheek the materialist will see the world as a rich interaction of
relations, and will see all things as one, and she will live
intoxicated at the joyful accident of life, performing all actions as
if she wished them to be a universal law, with no fear of god or
death. This is a true morality.


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