Monday, March 05, 2007

Everything Is Pointless

I am half-way through Daniel Dennett's 'Darwin's Dangerous Idea' and so far I can both recommend the text and say that I agree with almost everything Dennett has argued (much of which is common sense). An extract:

We began with a somewhat childish vision of an anthropomorphic, Handicrafter God, and recognized that this idea, taken literally, was well on the road to extinction. When we looked through Darwin's eyes at the actual processes of design of which we and all the wonders of nature are the products to date, we found that Paley was right to see these effects as the result of a lot of design work, but we found a non-miraculous account of it: a massively parallel, and hence prodigiously wasteful, process of mindless, algorithmic design-trying, in which, however, the minimal increments of design have been thriftily husbanded, copied and re-used over billions of years. The wonderful particularity or individuality of the creation was due, not to Shakespearean inventive genius, but to the incessant contributions of chance, a growing sequence of what Crick (1968) has called "frozen accidents."

The vision of the creative process still apparently left a role for God as a lawgiver, but this gave way in turn to the Newtonian role of Lawfinder, which also evaporated, as we have recently seen, leaving behind no Intelligent Agency in the process at all. What is left is what the process, shuffling through eternity, mindlessly finds (when it finds anything): a timeless Platonic possibility of order. That is indeed a thing of beauty, as mathematicians are forever exclaiming, but it is not itself something intelligent but wonder of wonders, something intelligible. Being abstract and outside of time, it is nothing with an initiation or origin in need of explanation.
Chapter eight is entitled 'Biology is Engineering', which neatly summarises Dennett's position: living organisms are machines constructed not by intelligence but by the process of natural selection. But yet again I am struck by Dennett's willingness to shrug his shoulders and say, so what? He almost demands that since everything is pointless, you might as well find meaning in the life that you get (without actually declaring that everything is pointless).

Doing some more reading around the internet, I happened upon an interesting article on existentialism. A couple of extracts:
For Existentialists like Sartre, the absence of God has a much larger significance than the metaphysics of creation: Without God there is no purpose, no value, and no meaning in the world. That is the foundational proposition for Existentialism. A world without purpose, value, or meaning is literally senseless, worthless, meaningless, empty, and hopeless. It is, to use a favorite Existentialist term, absurd.
The starkness and hopelessness of this problem is portrayed in an essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus" (1942), by another great French Existentialist, Albert Camus (1913-1960). In Greek mythology, Sisyphus, who had once deceived the gods and cheated death, was condemned for eternity to roll a stone up a hill. Every time he was about to complete his task, the stone would roll free back down to the bottom of the hill. Sisyphus would then have to start over again, even though the same thing would just happen again. Thus, the punishment of Sisyphus is a punishment just because it is an endless exercise in futility. Sisyphus is stuck in an eternally pointless task. Now, if the world and everything in it are also pointless, the lesson is that the task of Sisyphus is identical to every thing that we will ever be doing in life. We are no different from Sisyphus; and if his punishment makes the afterlife a hell for him, we are already living in that hell.

Presumably, Sisyphus is unable to escape his condition through suicide. So if we can, why not? Arguably, there is no reason why not. But suicide is not the typical Existentialist answer. What can Sisyphus do to make his life endurable? Well, he can just decide that it is meaningful. The value and purpose that objectively don't exist in the world can be restored by an act of will. Again, this is what has struck people as liberating about Existentialism. To live one's life, one must exercise the freedom to create a life. Just going along with conventional values and forgetting about the absurdity of the world is not authentic. Authenticity is to exercise one's free will and to choose the activities and goals that will be meaningful for one's self. With this approach, even Sisyphus can be engaged and satisfied with what he is doing.
Okay and this is my fundamental problem. Take Dennett's 'Consciousness Explained' where he explains away the self as an illusion - how can an act of will or self (which is illusion) really be the last bastion of meaning in the universe. It is absurd!

And despite the fact that I encounter a great resistance to the idea that everything is pointless from fellow atheists, it is funny that many theist websites actually agree with me. Here is an example taken from Woodlandschurch.org.uk:
Leonard Griffiths illustrated this very point in his book 'Barriers to Belief' when he wrote the following: 'To remove God from the picture does not solve your problem of pain and suffering and death, it simply intensifies the emptiness and fearfulness of it. For example, imagine a child dying of cancer in a hospital bed, lonely, unloved and un-cared for, nothing is more terrible to imagine. But now imagine that same scene but this time with a mother present, bending over the child, entering into its suffering, surrounding that child with the atmosphere of love, holding onto the child's hand as the child is dying. There is no less pain, yet the mother's loving companionship makes the whole grim situation so infinitely more tolerable. It is still awful, but it is bearable because the child matters to someone, and that someone to whom the child matters to is there. You see there is something worse in life than having to suffer innocently, and that is the feeling that you have to suffer alone.' (L Griffith, Barriers to Belief (Hodder & Stoughton 1967) p. 109).

Do you see what a disgusting and dreadful hell this earth would be if it were populated by a race wholly destitute of God? Do you also see that when a man loses God, he has lost everything and he has nothing left? Without God everything is pointless and suffering is hopeless.
And yet I hope for the very thing that they fear. I want to remove theism from the world, to create a race of humans entirely destitute of god. And since God never even existed (forget Nietzsche's 'God is Dead') it is the theists who are living, what is essentially a more pointless than pointless, existence. To use Camus's story, theists are like a Sisyphus who believes that pushing the rock up the hill will get them something in return, in the form of a reward from god. History and science both show this is a fallacy.

An example of the atheist viewpoint can be found on the British Humanist Association website:
“Isn’t the belief that we die and that’s the end depressing and morbid? Isn’t life pointless if that’s all there is?”

Why should the fact that something comes to an end make it pointless? Often the brevity and intensity of an experience is part of its value, and there are any number of exhilarating experiences which if prolonged indefinitely would become excruciating. (No doubt you can think of your own examples.)

Different people react differently to the idea of living for ever. Some people think that if they had the chance they would give it a go, while others are horrified by the idea of the boredom of endless repetition, or feel that it would be difficult to give meaning to a life without any finite shape and structure.

What gives the objection its plausibility is the fact that if an activity is cut short and left incomplete, we find this frustrating, but even that doesn’t make it worthless. An early death may indeed be tragic. But, by the same token, someone who has enjoyed a normal life span and looks back on their joys and achievements can feel a sense of fulfilment and completion – all the more so if they know that they will be remembered fondly and that they have bequeathed something positive to the next generation. That is the only sort of immortality we can hope for, and the only sort worth having.
But again, relating this to Sisyphus, the atheist just declares that everything is pointless, but heck, pushing the rock up the hill, is still better than being dead. For me though, I don't know if I agree. My existential angst is thus: The universe is absurd. Everything is pointless. I don't want to push a rock, nor commit suicide.