Sunday, May 27, 2007

To Be Or Not To Be

One of my problems is, I feel my angst. It can grip me, like a terror, and sometimes drive me to tears. And nobody can help. You can't petition god for a reprieve, nor expect special consideration from fate. All of our ancestors are dead, and we're all headed in the same direction...

Yesterday I sat in the bath and read two plays by Camus. The first, Caligula, is the true story of a nihilistic man, made king of the world, and the absurd acts he inflicts on those around him:

CALIGULA: ... But I'm not insane. In fact I've never been so lucid. It’s just that I suddenly felt a desire for the impossible. [Pauses.] Things as they are don’t strike me as satisfactory.

HELICON: That’s a widespread opinion.

CALIGULA: I suppose it is. But I didn't know it before. Now I know. [Still in the same matter-of-fact tone.] The world as it is is unbearable. That's why I need the moon, or happiness, or immortality, or something that may sound insane, but would help correct this world.

HELICON: That sounds fine. But no one could ever act on it.

CALIGULA: [rising to his feet, but still with perfect calmness] You know nothing about it. It's because no one dares to be logical and carry it through to its conclusion that nothing is ever achieved. [He studies Helicon's face.] I can see what you're thinking. What a fuss over the death of a woman! No, that's not it. I do recall that a few days ago a woman I loved died. But love is a side issue. Her death is no more than the symbol of a truth that makes the moon necessary to me. A childishly simple and obvious truth, a little stupid even, but hard to discover and harder to bear.

HELICON: And what is this truth you've discovered, Caius?

CALIGULA: [his eyes averted, in a toneless voice] People die. And they are not happy.

HELICON: [after a short pause] That’s a truth we manage to live with Caligula. It doesn't prevent most Romans from enjoying their lunch.

CALIGULA: [suddenly throws Helicon down violently] That’s because everyone around me is living a lie, and I want people to live with the truth. Remember, Helicon, I have the means of forcing them to live with the truth. They are deprived of knowledge and need a teacher who knows what he's talking about.
And from a little further on:
CHEREA: Since this world is the only one we have, why not plead its cause?

CALIGULA: No plea is necessary. The verdict's given: humanity has no special place in this world and whoever realizes that wins his freedom. [rising] You are not free. I alone am free. Rejoice, for you finally have an emperor to teach you freedom. Go away, Cherea, and you, too, Scipio. Go and spread the good news to all Romans.

[They go out. Caligula has turned away, hiding his eyes.]

CAESONIA: You’re crying. But what's really changed in your life? You may have loved Drusilla, but you loved others, myself included, at the same time. Surely that wasn't enough to set you roaming the countryside for three days and nights and bring you back with this . . . this cruel look on your face?

CALIGULA: [turning round to her] Why drag Drusilla into this? Can’t you imagine a person shedding for anything other than love?

CAESONIA: I'm sorry, Caius. I was only trying to understand.

CALIGULA: Men cry because the world's all wrong. [She starts to embrace him.] No, Caesonia. [She draws back.] But stay beside me.

CAESONIA: Whatever you want. [Sits down.] I’m no baby. I know that life's sometimes a sad business. But why deliberately set out to make it worse?

CALIGULA: You can't understand. But that doesn’t matter. Perhaps I'll find a way out. Only I feel the stirrings of nameless creatures within me, forcing their way up into the light - and I'm helpless against them. [He moves closer to her, but doesn’t see her] I knew people felt anguish, but I didn't know what the word meant. Like everyone else I imagined it was the soul that suffered. But it's my body that's in pain. Everywhere. In my chest, in my legs and arms. Even my skin is raw, my head is buzzing, I feel like vomiting. But worst of all is this grotesque taste in my mouth. Not blood, nor death, nor fever, but a mixture of all three. All I have to do is to stir my tongue for everything to become black and for human beings to revolt me.
Camus understood (and perhaps maybe, Caligula too). And the moral of Caligula is? You, live and you die, and hopefully a mad man doesn't fuck your wife in front of you and then have you killed...

The second play, called Cross Purpose, is the telling of the story, which is told briefly in 'The Outsider':
A man had left some Czech village to go and make his fortune. Twenty-five years later he'd come back rich, with wife and child. His mother and his sister were running a hotel in his native village. In order to surprise them, he'd left his wife and child at another hotel and gone to see his mother who hadn't recognized him when he'd walked in. Just for fun, he'd decided to book a room. He'd shown them his money. During the night his mother and sister had clubbed him to death with a hammer to steal his money, and then thrown his body into the river. The next morning. the wife had come along and without realizing revealed the traveller's identity. The mother had hanged herself. The sister had thrown herself down a well.
Ha. What a cheerful tale, but what a fun play it makes. Together, they are considered Camus' most pessimistic and nihilistic work.

And so I've been coming to the conclusion that there exists a great body of human thought, which argues that existence is pointless, absurd and arbitrary. That we live and die, with no reason or rhyme, and yet everyday we tell ourselves the opposite. There's only so many times it's worth saying or thinking that everything is pointless. Maybe if the world was a different place, and humans were a different type of species...

In 'The Outsider', Colin Wilson writes:
The atmosphere of the existentialist outsider is unpleasant to breathe. There is something nauseating, anti-life, about it: these men, without motive who stay in their rooms because there seems to be no reason for doing anything else.
And I realised after reading Wilson's book, that I am an outsider. There is no 'reason' for doing anything. And if there's something unpleasant about the outsider's atmosphere, rest assured he feels the same way, outside his room, breathing in the 'normal' air!

Finally, thinking about Camus' plays reminded me of 'Hamlet' (which I read over 10 years ago in college) and yet, only now, do I get it:
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. - Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember'd.
To be or not to be eh? Urghhh, I don't know...

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Hypnotized Sheep

I'm in a super-pissed off mood at the moment (long story - multiple reasons) but I want to share two stories that I got out of Colin Wilson's 'The Outsider' (which I've just finished reading):

[Tolstoy] cites an Eastern fable of a man who clings to a shrub on the side of a pit to escape an enraged beast at the top and a dragon at the bottom. Two mice gnaw at the roots of his shrub. Yet while hanging, waiting for death, he notices some drops of honey on the leaves of the shrub, and reaches out and licks them. This is man, suspended between the possibilities of violent accidental death and inevitable natural death, disease accelerating them, yet still eating, drinking, laughing at Fernandel in the cinema. This is the man who calls the outsider morbid, because he lacks appetite for the honey!
And:
There is an Eastern tale that speaks about a very rich magician who had a great many sheep. But at the same time this magician was very mean. He did not want to hire shepherds, nor did he want to erect a fence about the pasture where the sheep were grazing. The sheep consequently often wandered into the forest, fell into ravines and so on, and above all, they ran away, for they knew that the magician wanted their flesh and their skins, and this they did not like.

At last the magician found a remedy. He hypnotized his sheep and suggested to them, first of all, that they were immortal and that no harm was being done to them when they were skinned; that on the contrary, it would be very good for them and pleasant; secondly he suggested that the magician was a good master who loved his flock so much that he was ready to do anything in the world for them; and in the third place, he suggested that if anything at all were going to happen to them, it was not going to happen just then, at any rate not that day, and therefore they had no need to think about it. Further, the magician suggested to his sheep, that they were not sheep at all; to some of them he suggested that they were lions, to some that they were eagles, to some that they were men, to others that they were magicians.

After this all his cares and worries about the sheep came to an end. They never ran away again, but quietly awaited the time when the magician would require their flesh and skins.
More from 'The Outsider' when I'm less pissed off...

Monday, May 21, 2007

Death of a Window Cleaner

Consider this sorry yet intriguing tale from the BBC, about the death of a window cleaner, who drowned head first in his own bucket:

A window cleaner drowned in his bucket of water after suddenly collapsing while he worked, an inquest heard.

...The father-of-one, of Fowler Close, Scholes, was working at the home of Miss Bebe in Whelley, near Wigan. She told the inquest: "I went outside to hang some washing at the back when I saw a ladder propped up against the wall. "I then saw Mark lying on the ground motionless, with his arms tucked in and his head tilted to the right inside the bucket.

...Miss Bebe told the jury she thought Mr Fairhurst may have fallen while on the ground, rather than from his ladder. The hearing also heard that the window cleaner had complained about heart palpitations earlier in the year but had not told his doctor. Pathologist Dr Charles Wilson told the jury he had been informed that Mr Fairhurst had been assaulted in August 2005 which had led to memory problems. He said he could not rule out the incident being linked to his blackout - but was satisfied there was no foul play.
And the mind boggles as to what actually happened. Did he fall off the ladder and land head first in the bucket? Was he standing over it, and by bad luck, passed out and toppled in? Perhaps he'd been attracted to something in the bucket (like a raven that's spotted a shiny coin) and with his head in it, passed out and drowned?

Maybe he had been fiendishly murdered, by a rival window cleaner? The head in the bucket could've been a clue! Or perhaps it was some misadventure. He could have been practising for the Guinness World Record for holding your breath underwater in a bucket the longest.

Or maybe it was god or even aliens (okay, now I'm being silly).

The absurd theory I favour the most, is that it was a particularly poignant suicide. What better way for a window cleaner to go, than drowning in his own soapsuds?

And finally, is there a moral to this story? Water kills?!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Aristotle Also

As a recent comment pointed out, Heine's 'sleep is good, death is better' is certainly not unique. Take this quote by Aristotle (from over 2000 years before Heine's birth):

Wretched, ephemeral race, children of chance and tribulation, why do you force me to tell you the very thing which it would be most profitable for you not to hear? The very best thing is utterly beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. However, the second best thing for you is: to die soon.
Isn't that brilliant? Yet, I can't say whether I entirely agree or not?

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Boredom Gained the Upper Hand

Kierkegaard once wrote:

Surely no one will prove himself so great a bore as to contradict me in this. . . . The gods were bored, and so they created man. Adam was bored because he was alone, and so Eve was created. Thus boredom entered the world, and increased in proportion to the increase of population. Adam was bored alone; then Adam and Eve were bored together; then Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel were bored en famille; then the population of the world increased, and the peoples were bored en masse. To divert themselves they conceived the idea of constructing a tower high enough to reach the heavens. This idea is itself as boring as the tower was high, and constitutes a terrible proof of how boredom gained the upper hand.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Empty Space

Following on from the last post, I thought I'd share the picture that's lived on my desktop for the last year or so. Although the small version hardly does the scene justice (click on it to see the spectacular full-size version) it never fails to stun me, how immensely huge and old the universe is (and how small and insignificant humanity is).

Something equally impressive, although without the pretty pictures, is the Boötes Void. From Wikipedia:

The Boötes void is a tremendously large, approximately spherically shaped nearly-empty region of space, devoid of galaxies. At nearly 250 million light-years in diameter, it is one of the largest known voids, and is referred to as a supervoid. It was discovered in 1981 by Robert Kirshner, Augustus Oemler, Jr., Paul Schechter and Stephen Shectman in a survey of galactic redshifts.

It is located in the area of the constellation Boötes, for which it is named. To give an idea of its scale, "If the Milky Way had been in the center of the Boötes void, we wouldn't have known there were other galaxies until the 1960s." (Greg Aldering, University of Minnesota).
I also found a very interesting article on the void, at a blog called 'Accelerating Future', which contains this paragraph:
According to the Wikipedia article on the topic, the Boötes Void was mentioned in a novel by Martin Amis, “Night Train”, which centers around the mysterious suicide of a beautiful and successful astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell. The immense size of the void leads her to conclude that there is no meaning to life, so she kills herself.
So that's my novel out of the window then! On a serious note, the more we learn about space, the more we understand that the heavens are not the playground of the gods, but are an empty and lonely expanse, the likes of which was never even imagined till we actually looked...

The Ninth Configuration

Just when you were all giddy from the previous post... This clip is from a film that I watched recently. Written and directed by William Blatty (of 'The Exorcist' fame) 'The Ninth Configuration' surprised me completely. It is an absurd masterpiece and funny to boot. Think an even more existential version of 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest', with atheist astronauts, Hamlet for dogs, and psychotic Vietnam vets! If you don't believe me, look at the plot keywords on IMDB.

There is lots of poignant dialogue in the film, but I chose this last speech, purely because I sometimes get a very similar feeling come over me. The fear that Cutshaw describes in his, 'if there is no god, we are really alone' speech (with tears rolling down his face) is (in my mind anyway) quite reasonable given the pointlessness and absurdity of existence. We are alone in the universe and we're all going to die. Even to die amongst other absurd creatures hardly seems any kind of compensation really. But maybe I'm just too hard to please?

Blatty intended the film to be a damning criticism of atheism and an argument for the existence of god (I know because I listened to the DVD commentary!). He cries out to us, 'there just has to be a god, or life is depressingly absurd!'. Apparently there are quite a few versions of the film, and disappointingly the version I watched ended with a ridiculous paranormal happening, which proves life after death, converts the atheist, and everything turns out alright.

If you can handle these last few sickly sweet seconds, I can heartily recommend this absurd piece of existential cinema. Just remember ifs are for the weak (read agnostics). There is no god...

Monday, May 14, 2007

Grass

All this talk of pushing buttons for pleasure, reminded me of the film 'Grass' and the scientific experiments investigating the effect of cannabis. Funny, eh?

Pleasure or Pain?

Talking about Schopenhauer and suicide, today I found a very interesting essay by Schopenhauer on suicide. An extract:

The inmost kernel of Christianity is the truth that suffering - the Cross - is the real end and object of life. Hence Christianity condemns suicide as thwarting this end; whilst the ancient world, taking a lower point of view, held it in approval, nay, in honor. But if that is to be accounted a valid reason against suicide it invokes the recognition of asceticism; that is to say, it is valid only from a much higher ethical standpoint than has ever been adopted by moral philosophers in Europe. If we abandon that high standpoint, there is no tenable reason left, on the score of morality, for condemning suicide. The extraordinary energy and zeal with which the clergy of monotheistic religions attack suicide is not supported either by any passages in the Bible or by any considerations of weight; so that it looks as though they must have some secret reason for their contention. May it not be this - that the voluntary surrender of life is a bad compliment for him who said that all things were very good? If this is so, it offers another instance of the crass optimism of these religions - denouncing suicide to escape being denounced by it.
It is funny really that christianity could attain such popularity, preaching such idiocies. I guess you are what you believe. A rather bizarre example of christians enduring suffering for their faith, can be found in the practice of corporal mortification. From the Opus Dei Awareness Network:
Listed below are the ways Opus Dei numeraries practice corporal mortification:

Cilice: a spiked chain worn around the upper thigh for two hours each day, except for Church feast days, Sundays, and certain times of the year. This is perhaps the most shocking of the corporal mortifications, and generally Opus Dei members are extremely hesitant to admit that they use them. It is a painful mortification which leaves small prick holes in the flesh, and makes the Opus Dei members tentative about wearing swim suits wherever non-Opus Dei members may be.

Discipline : a cord-like whip which resembles macrame, used on the buttocks or back once a week. Opus Dei members must ask permission to use it more often, which many do. The story is often told in Opus Dei that the Founder was so zealous in using the discipline, he splattered the bathroom walls with streaks of blood.

Cold Showers : Most numeraries take cold showers every day and offer it up for the intentions of the current Prelate.

Meals : Numeraries generally practice one small corporal mortification at every meal, such as drinking coffee without milk or sugar, not buttering one's toast, skipping dessert, not taking seconds, etc. For the most part, eating between meals is not practiced. Opus Dei members fast on the Church's prescribed days for fasting, but otherwise must ask for permission to fast on their own.

The Heroic Minute : Numeraries are encouraged to jump out of bed and kiss the floor as soon as the door is knocked in the morning. As they kiss, they say "Serviam," Latin for "I will serve."

Silences : Each night after making an examination of conscience, numeraries do not speak to one another until after Holy Mass the following morning. (They do not say "Good morning" to anyone as they are getting ready.) In the afternoons, they try to avoid speaking until dinnertime. On Sundays, numeraries generally do not listen to music, especially in the afternoons.
So how stupid do you have to be to spend any time worshipping a non-existent god in ways that physically hurt you?

A while back I quoted this passage from Steven Pinker's book 'How the Mind Works':
Some parts of the mind register the attainment of increments of fitness by giving us a sensation of pleasure. Other parts use a knowledge of cause and effect to bring about goals. Put them together and you get a mind that rises to a biologically pointless challenge: figuring out how to get at the pleasure circuits of the brain and deliver little jolts of enjoyment without the inconvenience of wringing bona fide fitness increments from the harsh world. When a rat has access to a lever that sends electrical impulses to an electrode implanted in its medial forebrain bundle, it presses the lever furiously until it drops of exhaustion, foregoing opportunities to eat, drink and have sex. People don't yet undergo elective neurosurgery to have electrodes implanted in their pleasure centers, but they have found ways to stimulate them by other means. An obvious example is recreational drugs, which seep into the chemical junctions of the pleasure circuits.
And I wanted to know, if people are allowed to flagellate and mutilate themselves, where are the kind doctors working on a pleasure device that cuts out all the middlemen and delivers a jolt of happiness right when we want it? I found this damn interesting article over at DamnInteresting.com:
Between 1950 and 1952, another man named Dr. Robert G. Heath experimentally implanted similar depth electrodes into human brains, the subjects mostly comprised of mentally ill patients from state mental hospitals. His experiments were met with uneasiness from the scientific community at the time, yet he continued. Upon the discovery of the brain's pleasure centers by Olds and Milner in '54, he put much of his research focus there. He found that using ESB in these areas of a human brain had a similar effect as it did on laboratory animals, bringing the subjects immediate pleasure.

...Today, medical technology allows such electrodes to be completely implanted into the human body, including a battery pack the size of a book of matches. But these are a rarity, used only in very specific and extreme cases. Not even victims of intractable neuropathic pain or depression are permitted to have their pleasure centers wired. Individuals with happiness deficits are instead treated with drugs, which are both more and less invasive, depending on how you look at it. Medications don't involve holes drilled into the skull, but they do act upon the entire body, causing a host of unwanted chemical side-effects. Often they also result in a lifelong expense.
And I am actually outraged. We seemingly have the technology to end human misery for those that wish to take it, and if the technology is at present an unknown, it is because scientists have not pursued (or been allowed to pursue) this line of research with as much vigour as is necessary. The article concludes:
there is no way to know for certain how a human might change in response to such technology. One could also point out that many people never tire of other stimulations such as sex or pleasurable foods, and that while many people will naturally partake of those pleasurable activities a lot at first, most will gradually moderate the usage to times when it is most needed or appropriate. But nothing would stop an ESB-wired person from taking a day off work, putting a brick on the button, and enjoying an afternoon of bliss. As an added benefit over sex and chocolate, this technology isn't likely to result in unwanted pregnancies, disease, or weight gain.
It is absurd that any human chooses pain on the false promise of an eternal life and equally absurd that humanity knows how to create happiness, but denies itself. Come on people. There isn't anybody around to smack our hands from the cookie jar, and no higher power to disapprove.

I for one would consider testing such a device (although maybe I wouldn't be the first guinea pig). And would I get bored of pressing the button? That's a question I'm quite willing to empirically test...

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Boredom

Over the last few months I've been struck by an ever increasing boredom, and I've lost interest in many of the things that I once filled my time with. Everything is pointless, so what point in doing anything, and what fun is there to be had in existence, when it all comes to naught?

Quite aptly, I recently happened upon an interesting blog called Happiness & Philosophy, on which I discovered a link to an essay by Arthur Schopenhauer, called 'The Emptiness of Existence'. Some extracts will illustrate my current mood perfectly:

Of every event in our life it is only for a moment that we can say that it is; after that we must say for ever that it was. Every evening makes us poorer by a day. It would probably make us angry to see this short space of time slipping away, if we were not secretly conscious in the furthest depths of our being that the spring of eternity belongs to us, and that in it we are always able to have life renewed.

Reflections of the nature of those above may, indeed, establish the belief that to enjoy the present, and to make this the purpose of one’s life, is the greatest wisdom; since it is the present alone that is real, everything else being only the play of thought. But such a purpose might just as well be called the greatest folly, for that which in the next moment exists no more, and vanishes as completely as a dream, can never be worth a serious effort.

...That human life must be a kind of mistake is sufficiently clear from the fact that man is a compound of needs, which are difficult to satisfy; moreover, if they are satisfied, all he is granted is a state of painlessness, in which he can only give himself up to boredom. This is a precise proof that existence in itself has no value, since boredom is merely the feeling of the emptiness of life. If, for instance, life, the longing for which constitutes our very being, had in itself any positive and real value, boredom could not exist; mere existence in itself would supply us with everything, and therefore satisfy us. But our existence would not be a joyous thing unless we were striving after something; distance and obstacles to be overcome then represent our aim as something that would satisfy us—an illusion which vanishes when our aim has been attained; or when we are engaged in something that is of a purely intellectual nature, when, in reality, we have retired from the world, so that we may observe it from the outside, like spectators at a theatre. Even sensual pleasure itself is nothing but a continual striving, which ceases directly its aim is attained. As soon as we are not engaged in one of these two ways, but thrown back on existence itself, we are convinced of the emptiness and worthlessness of it; and this it is we call boredom. That innate and ineradicable craving for what is out of the common proves how glad we are to have the natural and tedious course of things interrupted. Even the pomp and splendour of the rich in their stately castles is at bottom nothing but a futile attempt to escape the very essence of existence, misery.

...If one turns from contemplating the course of the world at large, and in particular from the ephemeral and mock existence of men as they follow each other in rapid succession, to the detail of life, how like a comedy it seems!

It impresses us in the same way as a drop of water, crowded with infusoria, seen through a microscope, or a little heap of cheese-mites that would otherwise be invisible. Their activity and struggling with each other in such little space amuse us greatly. And it is the same in the little span of life—great and earnest activity produces a comic effect.

A comic effect indeed, but I'm not laughing. I'm bored and angry. Everything is pointless and like a universal acid, that knowledge reduces existence to the absurd. No ifs, no buts, and any arguments to the contrary are merely blah, blah, blah.

As far as I can see, the solutions are delusion, boredom or death, and given those choices, I can't decide which, if any, is the best (or worst). I've tried delusion, and it's over-rated. Suicide seems rather drastic (although very effective at eliminating angst and boredom). And boredom is a kind of torture (one I personally find quite unbearable for anything but the shortest of times).

"What to do, what to do?" I ask myself. Like Alice down the rabbit hole, surrounded by the nut-jobs of Wonderland.

Funnily, Schopenhauer lived to the ripe old age of 72, spending the last 27 years of his life alone, apart from a couple of pet poodles for company. According to Wikipedia he was a militant atheist and absolute pessimist, and if that description is not apt for Schopenhauer, it is certainly a good description of yours truly. I'm not yet entirely bored of my blog, so for now I'll keep on with my own pessimism and atheism. I just wish I could be certain I'd reach 72, and I might stop stressing so much...

Thursday, May 10, 2007

98% Chimp. 100% Dumb

Sometimes it stuns me, that people who are apparently very clever, can also say very stupid things. Last week I picked up a copy of 'What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee' by Jonathan Marks, a professor of anthropology. He was recently named a fellow of the AAAS, and I was interested to find out his opinion on human being.

Unfortunately, after reading the conclusion of the book, I couldn't really bring it on myself to read any more. An extract will show why:

Thirty years ago, in a widely read scientific-philosophical work called Chance and Necessity, the French molecular biologist Jacques Monod argued that evolution shows life to be meaningless. While this might easily be dismissed as “Sartre among the test-tubes,” it carried the authority of science, because a prominent scientist wrote it. Is the proposition true? Perhaps, but there is no way to know. There is no class of data to be collected that would indicate whether life is meaningful or not. It is not a scientific proposition.

More than that, it is a distasteful proposition. Bluntly put, people care more about whether their life has meaning than they do about whether they came from apes. If you tell them that science shows life has no meaning and that we came from apes, it is not surprising to imagine that they would reject both scientific propositions. In fact, it is pretty dumb to think otherwise.

The problem is that science is very good at answering questions people don’t care about. To the extent that physics aids the technology that allows you to reheat frozen food in a few minutes, it is obviously useful. But using technology derived from it, and caring about it, are different things. The things that people care about tend to be the things outside the domain of science—What is death? Will I always be able to take care of my children? Why do good things happen to bad people? How can I be happy?

All humans care about these things. All cognitive systems provide answers for them. In addition, they provide explanations for how humans and the world they live in came to be—as the scientific myth does. And more than that, other myths explain not simply how we came into existence, but why.

And science doesn’t.

Science explains how we came to exist more accurately than does any other myth. By its own criterion, it is therefore the best explanation. But it is an answer to a relatively small and trivial question. Science tells us that we are descended from apes, a fact that affects people’s lives and minds minimally, if at all. On the other hand, science says nothing about whether the cosmos is ultimately benevolent or just. The perpetual crisis in science education is largely the result of a consistent failure of scientists themselves to be educated about what they do and its implications.

Richard Dawkins writes in River Out of Eden:

[I]f the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies . . . are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in its intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

And for good measure he adds, “DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”

Well, maybe we do and maybe we don’t. Since the author is not an expert on molecular genetics, we may consequently take his musings about DNA with a grain of salt, falling within the domain of folk heredity. But what about his dour view of the universe? Here Dawkins presents a consistency argument, not a test of an hypothesis. After all, the universe also has precisely the properties we would expect to find if it were benevolent and designed, and we simply didn ’t understand it, lacking the key to its pattern. If the only language you speak is Greek, other languages may sound like random noise, like “bar, bar, bar,” which is why the Greeks called non-Greek speakers “barbarians.” But that’s a statement about the limitations of the Greeks, not about the other peoples.

Random noise may be random noise or it may simply be stuff you don’t understand, which consequently looks or sounds like random noise. The history of modern science, after all, is about the discovery and imposition of order on what formerly looked like chaos. Perhaps ultimately there is just chaos, but Dawkins’s assertion about it is no more than that, an assertion. Dawkins ’s interpretation of the universe might be true, but again, since there is no positive knowledge we can acquire, no controlled set of data we can collect that would indicate whether it is in fact likely to be true, we are obliged to identify the statement as nonscience.

The scientist is, of course, welcome to his opinion. It is not, however, the case that his opinion about this is more scientific than any other. Indeed, since it reflects an inability to tell science from nonscience , it might actually be regarded as less scientific than any other. The important criticism, however, lies in the implications of teaching such philosophy as if it constituted science, indeed as if it constituted the theory of evolution. The scientist says: “Science has explained many things about the universe. Your life has no meaning. Have a nice day.” And then he is surprised and appalled at the public rejection of that philosophy. If the goal of science is to make people miserable, then Dawkins and his gloomy philosophy would seem to be the ideal evangelical tool.

But for those of us who think that perhaps people do have the right to be happy (or at least, as Thomas Jefferson believed, the right to pursue happiness), it is an impoverished and unfulfilling worldview. Small wonder it is so unpopular! Small wonder that people would rather derive pleasure from the comforting inanities of The Celestine Prophecy.
And here is the truth then. We are descended from apes. Life is meaningless. Everything is pointless. Don't shoot the messenger for telling you the truth. And if you're too scared to face it, go and join a monastery!

Most people = 98% chimp. 100% dumb.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Monod's the Man

I don't suppose many people will get through the last post (given it's quite long), so here's a shorter dose of pointlessness for those with brief attention spans. According to Wikipedia, Jacques Monod was:

a French biologist who was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1965. Born in Paris, he was also awarded several other honours and distinctions, among them the Légion d'honneur.
Apparently he was a friend of Albert Camus, and in 1970 he published 'Chance and Necessity' which argues that the origins of life are random, and humans were a lucky happenstance:
… man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance. Neither his destiny nor his duty have been written down. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose.
I found an interesting interview with Monod at (shudder) answersingenesis.org:

John: Could I go back to the question of creation? As I understand your point of view, and as it has been put to me, traditionally Christians have said, ‘God created the world at the beginning; God at a certain stage created life; God was at many points involved’ Then science came along and said, ‘No, we can give you a determinist account of how the universe was created, and how life came into being, entirely by scientific laws; we have no need of the hypothesis of a theistic creator.’

Now, am I right in thinking that you have taken that one stage further, and said, ‘No, it isn’t in fact a determinist system; it is even more difficult to imagine God because of the elements of randomness that occur at many points in this story, and in fact, that are the whole thread holding the story together? God couldn’t have decided in the beginning to use this mechanism to create man because he couldn’t have predicted at the beginning that man would emerge from it.

Monod: You are quite right. The advent of man was completely unpredictable, until it actually happened.

John: So in other words, we would need a more sophisticated account of creation. I wonder if I could take one sentence from your book and see how you would regard it as an attempt at a more sophisticated account of the Creator. You point to two factors in the emergence of higher and higher forms of life: one is randomness, mutations; the other is natural selection. And what you say is that randomness is the nourishment which natural selection uses. And you say it is not to chance. but to these conditions—namely, of what is to be selected—that evolution owes its generally progressive course, and steady development which it seems to suggest. In other words, one could conceive of God using randomness, just so long as there was the pattern which he was imposing upon the results of the chance mutations.

Monod: If you want to assume that, then I have no dispute with it, except one (which is not a scientific dispute, but a moral one). Namely, selection is the blindest, and most cruel way of evolving new species, and more and more complex and refined organisms.

John: Cruel?

Monod: The more cruel because it is a process of elimination, of destruction. The struggle for life and elimination of the weakest is a horrible process, against which our whole modern ethics revolts. An ideal society is a non-selective society, is one where the weak is protected; which is exactly the reverse of the so-called natural law. I am surprised that a Christian would defend the idea that this is the process which God more or less set up in order to have evolution.

And Monod seems like he was a very wise person. I'll close with a great quote, attributed to him on his Wikipedia page:
A scientist who believes in god suffers from schizophrenia

The Opposition Agrees

I'm finding it mildly difficult getting back into the swing of things, and my enthusiasm for pointing out the absurdity of existence seems to be on the wane (at least for the present). Fitting then, that today I found an article called 'The Absurdity of Life Without God' which reads like something from this blog (although I'll warn you, it's written by a christian). The piece discusses a variety of different sources (some of which will be familiar) and given that there is no god and everything is pointless, I felt compelled to reproduce a large chunk of it here:

The necessity of God and Immortality

Man, writes Loren Eiseley, is the Cosmic Orphan. He is the only creature in the universe who asks, “Why?” Other animals have instincts to guide them, but man has learned to ask questions.

“Who am I?” man asks. “Why am I here? Where am I going?” Since the Enlightenment, when he threw off the shackles of religion, man has tried to answer these questions without reference to God. But the answers that came back were not exhilarating, but dark and terrible. “You are the accidental by-product of nature, a result of matter plus time plus chance. There is no reason for your existence. All you face is death.”

Modern man thought that when he had gotten rid of God, he had freed himself from all that repressed and stifled him. Instead, he discovered that in killing God, he had also killed himself.

For if there is no God, then man’s life becomes absurd.

If God does not exist, then both man and the universe are inevitably doomed to death. Man, like all biological organisms, must die. With no hope of immortality, man’s life leads only to the grave. His life is but a spark in the infinite blackness, a spark that appears, flickers, and dies forever. Compared to the infinite stretch of time, the span of man’s life is but an infinitesimal moment; and yet this is all the life he will ever know. Therefore, everyone must come face to face with what theologian Paul Tillich has called “the threat of non-being.” For though I know now that I exist, that I am alive, I also know that someday I will no longer exist, that I will no longer be, that I will die. This thought is staggering and threatening: to think that the person I call “myself” will cease to exist, that I will be no more!

...And the universe, too, faces death. Scientists tell us that the universe is expanding, and everything in it is growing farther and farther apart. As it does so, it grows colder and colder, and its energy is used up. Eventually all the stars will burn out and all matter will collapse into dead stars and black holes. There will be no light at all; there will be no heat; there will be no life; only the corpses of dead stars and galaxies, ever expanding into the endless darkness and the cold recesses of space–a universe in ruins. The entire universe marches irreversibly toward its grave. So not only is the life of each individual person doomed; the entire human race is doomed. The universe is plunging toward inevitable extinction–death is written throughout its structure. There is no escape. There is no hope.

The absurdity of life without God and Immortality

If there is no God, then man and the universe are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death, we await our unavoidable execution. There is no God, and there is no immortality. And what is the consequence of this? It means that life itself is absurd. It means that the life we have is without ultimate significance, value, or purpose. Let’s look at each of these.

No Ultimate Meaning Without Immortality and God

If each individual person passes out of existence when he dies, then what ultimate meaning can be given to his life? Does it really matter whether he ever existed at all? It might be said that his life was important because it influenced others or affected the course of history. But this only shows a relative significance to his life, not an ultimate significance. His life may be important relative to certain other events, but what is the ultimate significance of any of those events? If all the events are meaningless, then what can be the ultimate meaning of influencing any of them? Ultimately it makes no difference.

Look at it from another perspective: Scientists say that the universe originated in an explosion called the “Big Bang” about 15 billion years ago. Suppose the Big Bang had never occurred. Suppose the universe had never existed. What ultimate difference would it make? The universe is doomed to die anyway. In the end it makes no difference whether the universe ever existed or not. Therefore, it is without ultimate significance.

The same is true of the human race. Mankind is a doomed race in a dying universe. Because the human race will eventually cease to exist, it makes no ultimate difference whether it ever did exist. Mankind is thus no more significant than a swarm of mosquitos or a barnyard of pigs, for their end is all the same. The same blind cosmic process that coughed them up in the first place will eventually swallow them all again.

And the same is true of each individual person. The contributions of the scientist to the advance of human knowledge, the researches of the doctor to alleviate pain and suffering, the efforts of the diplomat to secure peace in the world, the sacrifices of good men everywhere to better the lot of the human race–all these come to nothing. In the end they don’t make one bit of difference, not one bit. Each person’s life is therefore without ultimate significance. And because our lives are ultimately meaningless, the activities we fill our lives with are also meaningless. The long hours spent in study at the university, our jobs, our interests, our friendships–all these are, in the final analysis, utterly meaningless. This is the horror of modern man: because he ends in nothing, he is nothing.

But it is important to see that it is not just immortality that man needs if life is to be meaningful. Mere duration of existence does not make that existence meaningful. If man and the universe could exist forever, but if there were no God, their existence would still have no ultimate significance. To illustrate: I once read a science-fiction story in which an astronaut was marooned on a barren chunk of rock lost in outer space. He had with him two vials: one containing poison and the other a potion that would make him live forever. Realizing his predicament, he gulped down the poison. But then to his horror, he discovered he had swallowed the wrong vial–he had drunk the potion for immortality. And that meant that he was cursed to exist forever–a meaningless, unending life. Now if God does not exist, our lives are just like that. They could go on and on and still be utterly without meaning. We could still ask of life, “So what?” So it is not just immortality man needs if life is to be ultimately significant; he needs God and immortality. And if God does not exist, then he has neither.

Twentieth-century man came to understand this. Read Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. During this entire play two men carry on trivial conversation while waiting for a third man to arrive, who never does. Our lives are like that, Beckett is saying; we just kill time waiting–for what, we don’t know. In a tragic portrayal of man, Beckett wrote another play in which the curtain opens revealing a stage littered with junk. For thirty long seconds, the audience sits and stares in silence at that junk. Then the curtain closes. That’s all.

One of the most devastating novels I’ve ever read was Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse. At the novel’s end, Harry Haller stands looking at himself in a mirror. During the course of his life he had experienced all the world offers. And now he stands looking at himself, and he mutters, “Ah, the bitter taste of life!” He spits at himself in the looking-glass, and then he kicks it to pieces. His life has been futile and meaningless.

French existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus understood this, too. Sartre portrayed life in his play No Exit as hell–the final line of the play are the words of resignation, “Well, let’s get on with it.” Hence, Sartre writes elsewhere of the “nausea” of existence. Camus, too, saw life as absurd. At the end of his brief novel The Stranger, Camus’s hero discovers in a flash of insight that the universe has no meaning and there is no God to give it one. The French biochemist Jacques Monod seemed to echo those sentiments when he wrote in his work Chance and Necessity, “Man finally knows he is alone in the indifferent immensity of the universe.”

Thus, if there is no God, then life itself becomes meaningless. Man and the universe are without ultimate significance.

No Ultimate Value Without Immortality and God

If life ends at the grave, then it makes no difference whether one has lived as a Stalin or as a saint. Since one’s destiny is ultimately unrelated to one’s behavior, you may as well just live as you please. As Dostoyevsky put it: “If there is no immortality then all things are permitted.” On this basis, a writer like Ayn Rand is absolutely correct to praise the virtues of selfishness. Live totally for self; no one holds you accountable! Indeed, it would be foolish to do anything else, for life is too short to jeopardize it by acting out of anything but pure self-interest. Sacrifice for another person would be stupid. Kai Nielsen, an atheist philosopher who attempts to defend the viability of ethics without God, in the end admits,

We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view, or that all really rational persons, unhoodwinked by myth or ideology, need not be individual egoists or classical amoralists. Reason doesn’t decide here. The picture I have painted for you is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me. . . . Pure practical reason, even with a good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality.

But the problem becomes even worse. For, regardless of immortality, if there is no God, then there can be no objective standards of right and wrong. All we are confronted with is, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s words, the bare, valueless fact of existence. Moral values are either just expressions of personal taste or the by-products of socio-biological evolution and conditioning. In the words of one humanist philosopher, “The moral principles that govern our behavior are rooted in habit and custom, feeling and fashion.” In a world without God, who is to say which values are right and which are wrong? Who is to judge that the values of Adolf Hitler are inferior to those of a saint? The concept of morality loses all meaning in a universe without God. As one contemporary atheistic ethicist points out, “to say that something is wrong because . . . it is forbidden by God, is . . . perfectly understandable to anyone who believes in a law-giving God. But to say that something is wrong . . . even though no God exists to forbid it, is not understandable. . . .” “The concept of moral obligation [is] unintelligible apart from the idea of God. The words remain but their meaning is gone.” In a world without God, there can be no objective right and wrong, only our culturally and personally relative, subjective judgements. This means that it is impossible to condemn war, oppression, or crime as evil. Nor can one praise brotherhood, equality, and love as good. For in a universe without God, good and evil do not exist–there is only the bare valueless fact of existence, and there is no one to say you are right and I am wrong.

No Ultimate Purpose Without Immortality and God

If death stands with open arms at the end of life’s trail, then what is the goal of life? To what end has life been lived? Is it all for nothing? Is there no reason for life? And what of the universe? Is it utterly pointless? If its destiny is a cold grave in the recesses of outer space, the answer must be yes–it is pointless. There is no goal, no purpose, for the universe. The litter of a dead universe will just go on expanding and expanding–forever.

And what of man? Is there no purpose at all for the human race? Or will it simply peter out someday lost in the oblivion of an indifferent universe? The English writer H. G. Wells foresaw such a prospect. In his novel The Time Machine Wells’s time traveller journeys far into the future to discover the destiny of man. All he finds is a dead earth, save for a few lichens and moss, orbiting a gigantic red sun. The only sounds are the rush of the wind and the gentle ripple of the sea. “Beyond these lifeless sounds,” writes Wells, “the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives–all that was over.” And so Wells’s time traveller returned. But to what?–to merely an earlier point on the purposeless rush toward oblivion. When as a non-Christian I first read Wells’s book, I thought, “No, no! It can’t end that way!” But if there is no God, it will end that way, like it or not. This is reality in a universe without God: there is no hope; there is no purpose. It reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s haunting lines:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

What is true of mankind as a whole is true of each of us individually: we are here to no purpose. If there is no God, then our life is not qualitatively different from that of a dog. I know that’s harsh, but it’s true. As the ancient writer of Ecclesiastes put it: “The fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. All go to the same place. All come from the dust and all return to the dust” (Eccles 3:19-20). In this book, which reads more like a piece of modern existentialist literature than a book of the Bible, the writer shows the futility of pleasure, wealth, education, political fame, and honor in a life doomed to end in death. His verdict? “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:2). If life ends at the grave, then we have no ultimate purpose for living.

But more than that: even if it did not end in death, without God life would still be without purpose. For man and the universe would then be simple accidents of chance, thrust into existence for no reason. Without God the universe is the result of a cosmic accident, a chance explosion. There is no reason for which it exists. As for man, he is a freak of nature–a blind product of matter plus time plus chance. Man is just a lump of slime that evolved into rationality. There is no more purpose in life for the human race than for a species of insect; for both are the result of the blind interaction of chance and necessity. As one philosopher has put it: “Human life is mounted upon a subhuman pedestal and must shift for itself alone in the heart of a silent and mindless universe.”

What is true of the universe and of the human race is also true of us as individuals. Insofar as we are individual human beings, we are the results of certain combinations of heredity and environment. We are victims of a kind of genetic and environmental roulette. Psychologists following Sigmund Freud tell us our actions are the result of various repressed sexual tendencies. Sociologists following B. F. Skinner argue that all our choices are determined by conditioning, so that freedom is an illusion. Biologists like Francis Crick regard man as an electro-chemical machine that can be controlled by altering its genetic code. If God does not exist, then you are just a miscarriage of nature, thrust into a purposeless universe to live a purposeless life.

So if God does not exist, that means that man and the universe exist to no purpose–since the end of everything is death–and that they came to be for no purpose, since they are only blind products of chance. In short, life is utterly without reason.

Do you understand the gravity of the alternatives before us? For if God exists, then there is hope for man. But if God does not exist, then all we are left with is despair. Do you understand why the question of God’s existence is so vital to man? As one writer has aptly put it, “If God is dead, then man is dead, too.”

Unfortunately, the mass of mankind do not realize this fact. They continue on as though nothing has changed. I’m reminded of Nietzsche’s story of the madman who in the early morning hours burst into the marketplace, lantern in hand, crying, “I seek God! I seek God!” Since many of those standing about did not believe in God, he provoked much laughter. “Did God get lost?” they taunted him. “Or is he hiding? Or maybe he has gone on a voyage or emigrated!” Thus they yelled and laughed. Then, writes Nietzsche, the madman turned in their midst and pierced them with his eyes.

‘Whither is God?’ he cried, ‘I shall tell you. We have killed him–you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night and more night coming on all the while? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? . . . God is dead. . . . And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves?’

The crowd stared at the madman in silence and astonishment. At last he dashed his lantern to the ground. “I have come too early,” he said. “This tremendous event is still on its way–it has not yet reached the ears of man.” Men did not yet truly comprehend the consequences of what they had done in killing God. But Nietzsche predicted that someday people would realize the implications of their atheism; and this realization would usher in an age of nihilism–the destruction of all meaning and value in life. The end of Christianity, wrote Nietzsche, means the advent of nihilism. This most gruesome of guests is standing already at the door. “Our whole European culture is moving for some time now,” wrote Nietzsche, “with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade, as toward a catastrophe: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect.”

Most people still do not reflect on the consequences of atheism and so, like the crowd in the marketplace, go unknowingly on their way. But when we realize, as did Nietzsche, what atheism implies, then his question presses hard upon us: how shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves?

The practical impossibility of Atheism

About the only solution the atheist can offer is that we face the absurdity of life and live bravely. Bertrand Russell, for example, wrote that we must build our lives upon “the firm foundation of unyielding despair.” Only by recognizing that the world really is a terrible place can we successfully come to terms with life. Camus said that we should honestly recognize life’s absurdity and then live in love for one another.

The fundamental problem with this solution, however, is that it is impossible to live consistently and happily within such a world view. If one lives consistently, he will not be happy; if one lives happily, it is only because he is not consistent. Francis Schaeffer has explained this point well. Modern man, says Schaeffer, resides in a two-story universe. In the lower story is the finite world without God; here life is absurd, as we have seen. In the upper story are meaning, value, and purpose. Now modern man lives in the lower story because he believes there is no God. But he cannot live happily in such an absurd world; therefore, he continually makes leaps of faith into the upper story to affirm meaning, value, and purpose, even though he has no right to, since he does not believe in God. Modern man is totally inconsistent when he makes this leap, because these values cannot exist without God, and man in his lower story does not have God.

Let’s look again, then, at each of the three areas in which we saw life was absurd without God, to show how man cannot live consistently and happily with his atheism.

Meaning of Life

First, the area of meaning. We saw that without God, life has no meaning. Yet philosophers continue to live as though life does have meaning. For example, Sartre argued that one may create meaning for his life by freely choosing to follow a certain course of action. Sartre himself chose Marxism.

Now this is utterly inconsistent. It is inconsistent to say life is objectively absurd and then to say one may create meaning for his life. If life is really absurd, then man is trapped in the lower story. To try to create meaning in life represents a leap to the upper story. But Sartre has no basis for this leap. Without God, there can be no objective meaning in life. Sartre’s program is actually an exercise in self-delusion. For the universe does not really acquire meaning just because I give it one. This is easy to see: for suppose I give the universe one meaning, and you give it another. Who is right? The answer, of course, is neither one. For the universe without God remains objectively meaningless, no matter how we regard it. Sartre is really saying, “Let’s pretend the universe has meaning.” And this is just fooling ourselves.

The point is this: if God does not exist, then life is objectively meaningless; but man cannot live consistently and happily knowing that life is meaningless; so in order to be happy he pretends life has meaning. But this is, of course, entirely inconsistent–for without God, man and the universe are without any real significance.

Value of Life

Turn now to the problem of value. Here is where the most blatant inconsistencies occur. First of all, atheistic humanists are totally inconsistent in affirming the traditional values of love and brotherhood. Camus has been rightly criticized for inconsistently holding both to the absurdity of life and the ethics of human love and brotherhood. The two are logically incompatible. Bertrand Russell, too, was inconsistent. For though he was an atheist, he was an outspoken social critic, denouncing war and restrictions on sexual freedom. Russell admitted that he could not live as though ethical values were simply a matter of personal taste, and that he therefore found his own views “incredible.” “I do not know the solution,” he confessed. The point is that if there is no God, then objective right and wrong cannot exist. As Dostoyevsky said, “All things are permitted.”

But Dostoyevsky also showed that man cannot live this way. He cannot live as though it is perfectly all right for soldiers to slaughter innocent children. He cannot live as though it is all right for dictatorial regimes to follow a systematic program of physical torture of political prisoners. He cannot live as though it is all right for dictators like Pol Pot to exterminate millions of their own countrymen. Everything in him cries out to say these acts are wrong–really wrong. But if there is no God, he cannot. So he makes a leap of faith and affirms values anyway. And when he does so, he reveals the inadequacy of a world without God.

The horror of a world devoid of value was brought home to me with new intensity a few years ago as I viewed a BBC television documentary called “The Gathering.” It concerned the reunion of survivors of the Holocaust in Jerusalem, where they rediscovered lost friendships and shared their experiences. Now, I had heard stories of the Holocaust before and had even visited Dachau and Buchenwald, and I thought I was beyond shocking by further tales of horror. But I found that I was not. Perhaps I had been made more sensitive by the recent birth of our beautiful baby girl, so that I applied the situations to her as they were related on the television. In any case, one woman prisoner, a nurse, told of how she was made the gynecologist at Auschwitz. She observed that pregnant women were grouped together by the soldiers under the direction of Dr. Mengele and housed in the same barracks. Some time passed, and she noted that she no longer saw any of these women. She made inquiries. “Where are the pregnant women who were housed in that barracks?” “Haven’t you heard?” came the reply. “Dr. Mengele used them for vivisection.”

Another woman told of how Mengele had bound up her breasts so that she could not suckle her infant. The doctor wanted to learn how long an infant could survive without nourishment. Desperately this poor woman tried to keep her baby alive by giving it pieces of bread soaked in coffee, but to no avail. Each day the baby lost weight, a fact that was eagerly monitored by Dr. Mengele. A nurse then came secretly to this woman and told her, “I have arranged a way for you to get out of here, but you cannot take your baby with you. I have brought a morphine injection that you can give to your child to end its life.” When the woman protested, the nurse was insistent: “Look, your baby is going to die anyway. At least save yourself.” And so this mother took the life of her own baby. Dr. Mengele was furious when he learned of it because he had lost his experimental specimen, and he searched among the dead to find the baby’s discarded corpse so that he could have one last weighing.

My heart was torn by these stories. One rabbi who survived the camp summed it up well when he said that at Auschwitz it was as though there existed a world in which all the Ten Commandments were reversed. Mankind had never seen such a hell.

And yet, if God does not exist, then in a sense, our world is Auschwitz: there is no absolute right and wrong; all things are permitted. But no atheist, no agnostic, can live consistently with such a view. Nietzsche himself, who proclaimed the necessity of living “beyond good and evil,” broke with his mentor Richard Wagner precisely over the issue of the composer’s anti-Semitism and strident German nationalism. Similarly Sartre, writing in the aftermath of the Second World War, condemned anti-Semitism, declaring that a doctrine that leads to extermination is not merely an opinion or matter of personal taste, of equal value with its opposite. In his important essay “Existentialism Is a Humanism,” Sartre struggles vainly to elude the contradiction between his denial of divinely pre-established values and his urgent desire to affirm the value of human persons. Like Russell, he could not live with the implications of his own denial of ethical absolutes.

A second problem is that if God does not exist and there is no immortality, then all the evil acts of men go unpunished and all the sacrifices of good men go unrewarded. But who can live with such a view? Richard Wurmbrand, who has been tortured for his faith in communist prisons, says,

The cruelty of atheism is hard to believe when man has no faith in the reward of good or the punishment of evil. There is no reason to be human. There is no restraint from the depths of evil which is in man. The communist torturers often said, ‘There is no God, no Hereafter, no punishment for evil. We can do what we wish.’ I have heard one torturer even say, ‘I thank God, in whom I don’t believe, that I have lived to this hour when I can express all the evil in my heart.’ He expressed it in unbelievable brutality and torture inflicted on prisoners.

The English theologian Cardinal Newman once said that if he believed that all evils and injustices of life throughout history were not to be made right by God in the afterlife, “Why I think I should go mad.” Rightly so.

And the same applies to acts of self-sacrifice. A number of years ago, a terrible mid-winter air disaster occurred in which a plane leaving the Washington, D.C. airport smashed into a bridge spanning the Potomac River, plunging its passengers into the icy waters. As the rescue helicopters came, attention was focused on one man who again and again pushed the dangling rope ladder to other passengers rather than be pulled to safety himself. Six times he passed the ladder by. When they came again, he was gone. He had freely given his life that others might live. The whole nation turned its eyes to this man in respect and admiration for the selfless and good act he had performed. And yet, if the atheist is right, that man was not noble–he did the stupidest thing possible. He should have gone for the ladder first, pushed others away if necessary in order to survive. But to die for others he did not even know, to give up all the brief existence he would ever have–what for? For the atheist there can be no reason. And yet the atheist, like the rest of us, instinctively reacts with praise for this man’s selfless action. Indeed, one will probably never find an atheist who lives consistently with his system. For a universe without moral accountability and devoid of value is unimaginably terrible.

Purpose of Life

Finally, let’s look at the problem of purpose in life. The only way most people who deny purpose in life live happily is either by making up some purpose, which amounts to self-delusion as we saw with Sartre, or by not carrying their view to its logical conclusions. Take the problem of death, for example. According to Ernst Bloch, the only way modern man lives in the face of death is by subconsciously borrowing the belief in immortality that his forefathers held to, even though he himself has no basis for this belief, since he does not believe in God. Bloch states that the belief that life ends in nothing is hardly, in his words, “sufficient to keep the head high and to work as if there were no end.” By borrowing the remnants of a belief in immortality, writes Bloch, “modern man does not feel the chasm that unceasingly surrounds him and that will certainly engulf him at last. Through these remnants, he saves his sense of self-identity. Through them the impression arises that man is not perishing, but only that one day the world has the whim no longer to appear to him.” Bloch concludes, “This quite shallow courage feasts on a borrowed credit card. It lives from earlier hopes and the support that they once had provided.” Modern man no longer has any right to that support, since he rejects God. But in order to live purposefully, he makes a leap of faith to affirm a reason for living.

We often find the same inconsistency among those who say that man and the universe came to exist for no reason or purpose, but just by chance. Unable to live in an impersonal universe in which everything is the product of blind chance, these persons begin to ascribe personality and motives to the physical processes themselves. It is a bizarre way of speaking and represents a leap from the lower to the upper story. For example, the brilliant Russian physicists Zeldovich and Novikov, in contemplating the properties of the universe, ask, Why did “Nature” choose to create this sort of universe instead of another? “Nature” has obviously become a sort of God-substitute, filling the role and function of God. Francis Crick halfway through his book The Origin of the Genetic Code begins to spell nature with a capital “N” and elsewhere speaks of natural selection as being “clever” and as “thinking” of what it will do. Fred Hoyle, the English astronomer, attributes to the universe itself the qualities of God. For Carl Sagan the “Cosmos,” which he always spells with a capital letter, obviously fills the role of a God-substitute. Though all these men profess not to believe in God, they smuggle in a God-substitute through the back door because they cannot bear to live in a universe in which everything is the chance result of impersonal forces.

And it’s interesting to see many thinkers betray their views when they’re pushed to their logical conclusions. For example, certain feminists have raised a storm of protest over Freudian sexual psychology because it is chauvinistic and degrading to women. And some psychologists have knuckled under and revised their theories. Now this is totally inconsistent. If Freudian psychology is really true, then it doesn’t matter if it’s degrading to women. You can’t change the truth because you don’t like what it leads to. But people cannot live consistently and happily in a world where other persons are devalued. Yet if God does not exist, then nobody has any value. Only if God exists can a person consistently support women’s rights. For if God does not exist, then natural selection dictates that the male of the species is the dominant and aggressive one. Women would no more have rights than a female goat or chicken have rights. In nature whatever is, is right. But who can live with such a view? Apparently not even Freudian psychologists, who betray their theories when pushed to their logical conclusions.

Or take the sociological behaviorism of a man like B. F. Skinner. This view leads to the sort of society envisioned in George Orwell’s 1984, where the government controls and programs the thoughts of everybody. If Pavlov’s dog can be made to salivate when a bell rings, so can a human being. If Skinner’s theories are right, then there can be no objection to treating people like the rats in Skinner’s rat-box as they run through their mazes, coaxed on by food and electric shocks. According to Skinner, all our actions are determined anyway. And if God does not exist, then no moral objection can be raised against this kind of programming, for man is not qualitatively different from a rat, since both are just matter plus time plus chance. But again, who can live with such a dehumanizing view?

Or finally, take the biological determinism of a man like Francis Crick. The logical conclusion is that man is like any other laboratory specimen. The world was horrified when it learned that at camps like Dachau the Nazis had used prisoners for medical experiments on living humans. But why not? If God does not exist, there can be no objection to using people as human guinea pigs. A memorial at Dachau says Nie Wieder–“Never Again”–but this sort of thing is still going on. It was revealed a few years ago that in the United States several people had been injected, unknown to them, with a sterilization drug by medical researchers. Must we not protest that this is wrong–that man is more than an electro-chemical machine? The end of this view is population control in which the weak and unwanted are killed off to make room for the strong. But the only way we can consistently protest this view is if God exists. Only if God exists can there be purpose in life.

The dilemma of modern man is thus truly terrible. And insofar as he denies the existence of God and the objectivity of value and purpose, this dilemma remains unrelieved for “post-modern” man as well. Indeed, it is precisely the awareness that modernism issues inevitably in absurdity and despair that constitutes the anguish of post-modernism. In some respects, post-modernism just is the awareness of the bankruptcy of modernity. The atheistic world view is insufficient to maintain a happy and consistent life. Man cannot live consistently and happily as though life were ultimately without meaning, value, or purpose. If we try to live consistently within the atheistic world view, we shall find ourselves profoundly unhappy. If instead we manage to live happily, it is only by giving the lie to our world view.

Confronted with this dilemma, man flounders pathetically for some means of escape. In a remarkable address to the American Academy for the Advancement of Science in 1991, Dr. L. D. Rue, confronted with the predicament of modern man, boldly advocated that we deceive ourselves by means of some “Noble Lie” into thinking that we and the universe still have value. Claiming that “The lesson of the past two centuries is that intellectual and moral relativism is profoundly the case,” Dr. Rue muses that the consequence of such a realization is that one’s quest for personal wholeness (or self-fulfillment) and the quest for social coherence become independent from one another. This is because on the view of relativism the search for self-fulfillment becomes radically privatized: each person chooses his own set of values and meaning. “There is no final, objective reading on the world or the self. There is no universal vocabulary for integrating cosmology and morality.” If we are to avoid “the madhouse option,” where self-fulfillment is pursued regardless of social coherence, and “the totalitarian option,” where social coherence is imposed at the expense of personal wholeness, then we have no choice but to embrace some Noble Lie that will inspire us to live beyond selfish interests and so achieve social coherence. A Noble Lie “is one that deceives us, tricks us, compels us beyond self-interest, beyond ego, beyond family, nation, [and] race.” It is a lie, because it tells us that the universe is infused with value (which is a great fiction), because it makes a claim to universal truth (when there is none), and because it tells me not to live for self-interest (which is evidently false). “But without such lies, we cannot live.”

This is the dreadful verdict pronounced over modern man. In order to survive, he must live in self-deception. But even the Noble Lie option is in the end unworkable. For if what I have said thus far is correct, belief in a Noble Lie would not only be necessary to achieve social coherence and personal wholeness for the masses, but it would also be necessary to achieve one’s own personal wholeness. For one cannot live happily and consistently on an atheistic world view. In order to be happy, one must believe in objective meaning, value, and purpose. But how can one believe in those Noble Lies while at the same time believing in atheism and relativism? The more convinced you are of the necessity of a Noble Lie, the less you are able to believe in it. Like a placebo, a Noble Lie works only on those who believe it is the truth. Once we have seen through the fiction, then the Lie has lost its power over us. Thus, ironically, the Noble Lie cannot solve the human predicament for anyone who has come to see that predicament.

The Noble Lie option therefore leads at best to a society in which an elitist group of illuminati deceive the masses for their own good by perpetuating the Noble Lie. But then why should those of us who are enlightened follow the masses in their deception? Why should we sacrifice self-interest for a fiction? If the great lesson of the past two centuries is moral and intellectual relativism, then why (if we could) pretend that we do not know this truth and live a lie instead? If one answers, “for the sake of social coherence,” one may legitimately ask why I should sacrifice my self-interest for the sake of social coherence? The only answer the relativist can give is that social coherence is in my self-interest–but the problem with this answer is that self-interest and the interest of the herd do not always coincide. Besides, if (out of self-interest) I do care about social coherence, the totalitarian option is always open to me: forget the Noble Lie and maintain social coherence (as well as my self-fulfillment) at the expense of the personal wholeness of the masses. Generations of Soviet leaders who extolled proletarian virtues while they rode in limousines and dined on caviar in their country dachas found this alternative quite workable. Rue would undoubtedly regard such an option as repugnant. But therein lies the rub. Rue’s dilemma is that he obviously values deeply both social coherence and personal wholeness for their own sakes; in other words, they are objective values, which according to his philosophy do not exist. He has already leapt to the upper story. The Noble Lie option thus affirms what it denies and so refutes itself.

The success of biblical Christianity

But if atheism fails in this regard, what about biblical Christianity? According to the Christian world view, God does exist, and man’s life does not end at the grave. In the resurrection body man may enjoy eternal life and fellowship with God. Biblical Christianity therefore provides the two conditions necessary for a meaningful, valuable, and purposeful life for man: God and immortality. Because of this, we can live consistently and happily. Thus, biblical Christianity succeeds precisely where atheism breaks down.

And in a way, doesn't that say it all? What's the fucking point...