Myers, Chesterton, Facebook: Some Thoughts

In my admittedly amateurish and youthful pursuit of truth, reason, emotion, spirituality and logic, I, as we all do, look to longer-tenured and brighter minds to illuminate our steps along the path of our belief journey, which is likely never ending.  About 18 months ago, I guess, I was first introduced to PZ Myers‘s blog, Pharyngula.  He is known as a sometime fire-breathing atheist and an outspoken liberal, and a professional biologist.  His biology seems spot on, to me; his atheism seems similar to mine, if a little more fierce and a good deal more refined; his politics are unapologetically liberal, and while I often agree with his stances I’m uncomfortable with his stark left/right dichotomy, and I feel it worthwhile to distinguish his scientific/philosophical stances from his political stances, as I almost always agree with the former but feel quite conflicted about the latter.

In any case, I excerpted a line from a recent blog of his (about junk DNA, which I don’t know that much about, though I’m learning more about and I find the conversation very interesting) as my Mombook status: ‎”[T]hey find comfort in the idea that everything in the universe must have a purpose, because if it doesn’t, maybe that means they are nothing more than spots of dandruff on a dead rock hurtling blindly through space, and we can’t have that then.” (“They” are, of course, Christians, specifically Young Earth Creationists in this case…but anyone with faith in (a) god(s) more generally.)  For me, this was yet another confrontation against what I’ve seen as the argument from final consequences, an argument that I’ve had a few times in person and a few times on Facemom.  It’s the idea that a) if the universe doesn’t have a purpose, then life has no purpose…then why even try to have a good life; or b) if there’s no life after this one, then there’s no point in caring about this life.

It might go without saying here that my feeling is that while I might only be a little bit of dandruff on a dead rock hurtling blindly through space, I am fortunate to have a sufficiently evolved brain that I might connect on an emotional level with other bits of dandruff — only, they aren’t “bits” to me, they’re my family, my loved ones, my dearest.  And I don’t think it takes away from me or them to suggest that we are only a tiny speck in the universe.  It’s still our fucking speck, and we’ll have it, thank you.

So, I’d posted that blerb from PZ as my Facebook status.  Shortly afterward, a G.K. Chesterton quote was appended to said status by a dear friend.  An uninvolved reader might only be interested in the quote, but since zeros of people read this blog, I’ll give a quick backstory on the poster.  Basically, we’ve been “BFFs” since forever, growing up in a church nursery together, playing in the woods and with LEGOs as young children, playing in a Christian rock band as high schoolers, and still speaking frequently despite living in faraway states.

I’ll grant here that I don’t know much about GKC; he was a late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century writer, a Christian apologist, an ontologist, among other things.  I’ll say that there is a group of Christians that I know and respect that tend to quote GKC (Sarah, Zak, Karl); they are deep thinkers, careful, wondering — they are not the dogmatists that I have a really hard time even communicating with.  So, here is the quote that Karl raised in seeming opposition to my PZ quote:

Atheism is abnormality. It is not merely the denial of dogma. It is the reversal of a subconscious assumption in the soul: the sense that there is meaning and direction in the world it sees.

A few things I’ve read about GKC have indicated that he’s not the most philosophically rigorous thinker, as even some Christians have said (though some disagree).  I am certainly among the amateur thinkers.  But here’s my take on this quote.

First, and this might be something that GCK addresses elsewhere — and I hope that readers who know more about him might enlighten me — there is the argument that Hitch and Dawkins and others have made repeatedly, that any Christian or Hindu or Muslim or Anamist is an “atheist” in some sense, in that each individual (aside from the most relativistic unaversalists, I suppose) does not believe in most gods that have been conceived of throughout human history.  Thus, one could argue that one woman’s belief in a god is another man’s atheism; that is to say, which god or gods are you not believing in?  There are counterarguments to that (i.e. “my” god is the only plausible god that should be believed in, a la Yahweh vs. Baal in the OT), and I want to address them in later posts.  But that’s the first point.

The second point is that it seems to me that GKC makes a hasty generalization for the general human subconscious.  Might it not be arguable that some worldviews (which might be called subconscious assumptions) point to little or no meaning in the broad scale (see the above PZ quote)?  Because he and those in his tradition have come to the conclusion a priori that there is meaning, they see it everywhere.  It can be argued that this is simply an expression of pareidolia, an evolutionarily beneficial trait (vis-a-vis survival) that overly identifies patterns and meaning because it’s better to see a non-threat as a threat than it is to see a threat as a non-threat (and by extension, meaning and design in randomness rather than randomness in meaning and design).  Thus, might not GKC’s “subconscious assumption” merely be an artifact of evolution?

Third, he assumes a “soul” here.  He frames the argument to include something that is inherently dualistic and spiritual, so that an already-agreeing reader might immediately latch on to the soul concept.

Fourth, and finally, the point (with one subpoint) that I think is most important.  Assuming that GKC is correct in that all humans have some subliminal feeling that there is meaning in the world/cosmos (which I disagree with, but nevertheless…), how in the hell can you argue that because we have this feeling that that is any basis on which to make a truth claim?  We know how fallible we are.  Unless I am either really, really good at doing the most perfect thing in every situation, or unless I am really, really good at lying to myself, I have to assume that I am wrong in a fairly high percentage of situations — again, unless one is willing to accept a totally relativistic worldview (which could be up for discussion at a later time) there have to be situations in which people think they’re right when they’re actually wrong.  As such, the whole, “This world/cosmos is really complex and intricate, and that just makes it seem like it has meaning,” seems awfully flimsy.  The subpoint here is that even if one were to convincingly argue for an ultimate goal (or purpose) for humanity, there’s still a lot of work to do in order to argue that it’s not the purpose of the Olympian gods, or Allah, or Vishnu, or whoever.  The argument from popularity or antiquity simply aren’t strong enough for me.

****

So, I know this is really long.  I’m really interested in this topic, and especially interested in discussing it with people I know.  If you have thoughts, please comment.  If not, writingn this was at least one more good step for me, as I work through these complicated issues.

With all love,

Matt

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3 Responses to Myers, Chesterton, Facebook: Some Thoughts

  1. ebwassink says:

    There’s obviously a lot to get into here so I’ll just start with a few points that struck me and we’ll continue from there.

    I totally agree with your third point, that the GKC quote is targeted at an already-agreeing reader who will see at as some affirmation of their opinion. But can’t we say the same thing for the PZ Myers quote? It’s meant for those that see the faith of Christians as rooted more in their need for some therapeutic (false) reassurance of meaning as opposed to a confirmation of what the see, experience, understand and study in various fields like philosophy and science. Neither of these quotes resonant with the other side. Just as GKC plays off of assumptions, so does PK Myers. He is assuming a certain sentimental motive Christianity.

    Regarding your second point, it’s fair to say that GKC ‘subconscious assumption’ is a result of evolution. However, some Christians (like yours truly) argue that evolution is part of the creation process. That would mean that this assumption is then part of our design. Of course you and I are now both working off of certain assumptions. If, as you say, this ‘assumption’ is simply a result of evolution, than it’s crazy to give it any credence. If, however, it is part of the way our creator designed us in him likeness, than it’s exactly what you would look to to understand him and it’s crazy to ignore it.

  2. Pingback: Response to “Myers, Chesterton, Facebook” « UnPractical

  3. drytheserial says:

    ebwassink (Brad, I’m assuming),

    You’re certainly correct that both the quote I originally posted and the quote that Karl posted were not originally written as apologetics. So, yes, you’re absolutely right that both quotes play off assumptions (or, maybe more accurately, conclusions) of both sides. I’m not disputing that. What I mean to do is raise questions about meaning and destiny and design and purpose. I think at the very least, that’s an easy “agree to disagree” deal, and I won’t comment on it any further (unless prompted).

    Your second point is one that I’ve thought about a lot, and though I’m certainly not smart enough to give a definitive answer, it’s one that I’m still interested in discussing. There’s a lot to pick apart, so I’ll probably end up blathering on. Enjoy, if you’d care to. 🙂

    Christians who accept the theory of evolution and incorporate it into their theology are an interesting bunch, and I think they might make up a lot more of the Church’s population that we realize: the six-day literallists are very vocal to the point of obduracy, while Christian evolutionary “accommodationalists” might feel awkward supporting a “secular” idea like evolution, even though it’s fact-based and they actually find the evidence compelling.

    So, you seem to be one who accepts the (in my opinion overwhelming) evidence that evolution has occurred but still contends that evolution is part of God’s plan. One argument against that is the demarcation problem: is there a certain point where monkeys got souls? Do all primates have souls? Do all animals have souls? Still, I’m hesitant to use the demarcation argument, because there are lots of issues that have demarcation problems. Abortion, for one: at what point does the fetus become a person? Well, there’s no defined line; at some point, it’s a judgment call. Or, how do we determine which people get food stamps? Again, it seems like there needs to be a line drawn somewhere, but if the line is at, say, 15,000 bucks a year, does the guy who makes 14,999 deserve food stamps while the woman who makes 15,001 doesn’t? Demarcation is always a problem in these issues, so while I think it’s work talking about, that’s not really the big problem here.

    Well, I took a little break from writing this and fell asleep. More to come later. 😛

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