Sunday, January 18, 2009

Life is a game of cards

By his own admission, Keith Parsons is an apostate. And you can see why. He’s one of those superficial individuals who, for every deep question, has a shallow answer. It’s not surprising that he didn’t find what he was looking for in Christianity. He brought the same nearsighted perspective to Christianity that he brings to life in general.

At the risk of stating the obvious, and when dealing with a superficial man like Parsons (I won’t call him a “thinker,” since a superficial thinker is a contradiction in terms), it’s necessary to state the obvious—to probe the meaning of life is the most important question you can ever ask. If life is meaningless, then all the other questions fade into insignificance.

And it’s not a question that invites a quick answer. That’s because it naturally operates at a more intuitive level. As divine creatures, we naturally take a lot for granted. It’s only natural to treat life as meaningful.

Living in a fallen world forces you to ask some elementary questions which you wouldn’t have an occasion to ask in an unfallen world. And if you’re a consistent unbeliever, then you begin to question all the things you naturally took for granted.

“The basic premise behind Craig’s argument seems to be that life is meaningless unless it is unending.”

Of course, that’s a gross oversimplification. Many factors contribute to the meaning of life. The meaning of life is a many-layered thing.

i) Immortality is a necessary, but insufficient, condition of a meaningful life.

ii) For one thing, you have to be conscious of your mortality for your mortality to figure in your outlook on life. A person who knows he has terminal cancer has a different outlook on life than a person who has terminal cancer, but is unaware of his impending demise.

iii) One of the things that sets us apart from most animals, or maybe all animals, is our sense of time. Of time’s passage. The past and the future. We’ve been blessed or cursed—as the case may be—with powers of foresight. We can look ahead. Anticipate the outcome.

Our foreknowledge of the future affects our attitude towards the present. And this cuts both ways. We are goal-oriented. And setting a goal can give us something to live for.

On the other hand, if we know we’re doomed, then that will cast a backward shadow on the present. I may enjoy the scenery as I stroll through the park, but if I know that a she-bear is waiting for me at the end of the trail, and I can’t avoid that fate, then my foreknowledge of the grisly outcome will darken my appreciation of the butterflies and flowers.

Although human beings live in the present, our ability to objectify time, to put some mental distance between ourselves and the momentary instant, means that our experience of the world isn’t limited to the present. We can’t pretend not to know what’s lurking around the bend.

I know, from a secular standpoint, that once I’m dead I won’t remember anything I did. So that’s always hanging over me, as an unbeliever—if I’m a consistent unbeliever.

iv) In addition, mortality is a process as well as an outcome. It’s not as if we’re in the prime of life from the day we’re born to the day we die. There is the aging process. We see ourselves dying. We feel ourselves dying. We see our loved ones dying. We see our loved ones die. The generation before us. Parents and grandparents.

It’s like an inmate on death row, with a clock and calendar. Tick-tock, tick-tock.

v) Apropos (iv), it’s not as if life is an undifferentiated continuum. Rather, we see ourselves passing through the lifecycle. Suppose I used to be the star quarterback in high school. Later, I become the football coach at my alma mater. Every year or so, I break in a new quarterback. I see him doing what I was doing, hoping what I was hoping—5, 10, 20 years ago. A relentless turnover. Some day he’ll become the next coach.

The nagging sense that my best days are behind me begins to tug on my shoulder. The nagging sense that we are interchangeable parts begins to tug on my shoulder. The nagging sense that we are replaceable parts that only exist to replace other replaceable parts, that we exist to replace ourselves, begins to tug on my shoulder. Is that all there is to life? A replicator that only exists to replicate another replicator, then self-destruct? Is that it?

vi) This goes beyond the question of mere mortality. It goes to the question of why we’re here. A question of purpose. In other words, it goes to the question of morality as well as mortality. If we weren’t designed to be or think or feel or do anything in particular, then nothing is right or wrong. Nothing is supposed to be any particular way.

And that eats away at the meaning of life. It consumes you from within, like a parasite, embedded in your flesh, that eats you alive, hollows you out. In that case, life ceases to be good. There are no goods. Nothing is good—or evil. At that point, it isn’t good to love your wife or kids or parents or rainbows or lobster or Monet. It may be pleasant, but it isn’t good.

It just is, the way everything just is. The way a dung heap just is.

On this view, what’s the difference between conjugal love and child molestation? On this view, there is no moral difference. It’s just a question of which activity you happen to find enjoyable. Making love to a woman or raping a little girl.

That’s not all, but that’s a start. For more, let’s proceed:

“What the atheist fails to see is why purpose in this cosmic sense is necessary for a life filled with meaning. Why does my, or my species', existence have to have been intended for me to discover love, beauty, truth, goodness, and all that gives life its deepest meanings?”

Notice that Parsons can’t escape his superficiality for long enough to even see the problem. Notice how he’s begging the question every step of the way. From a secular standpoint, is there “love, beauty, truth, goodness” out there, waiting to be discovered?

i) On a secular view, there is no goodness for us to discover. And unless truths are goods and goods are truths, there is no value, beyond sheer survival value, in discovering the truth.

ii) What about beauty? Is a wildflower beautiful? From a secular standpoint, beauty is not an objective property of flowers. Rather, that’s a purely subjective or, if you prefer, projective property. We project our sense of beauty onto natural objects.

It’s true that human beings “find” many natural objects beautiful: mountains, flowers, sunsets, &c. But it’s not as if the flower feels the same way about me that I feel about the flower. It’s not as if the flower was meant to be beautiful to you and me. So that’s not a discovery. It’s a projection. An illusion.

iii) Of course, from a Christian standpoint, things are quite different. From a Christian standpoint, there is a sense in which nature was truly meant to impress human observers. We were made for the natural world and the natural world was made for us.

iv) By the same token, the natural world also has a figural dimension. It was meant to point to something beyond itself, something greater than itself. Nature is an emblem of nature’s God. The Creator of the world.

v) So, from a Christian standpoint, we can truly discover beauty in nature.

vi) And this also applies to fine art. Take opera. Take opera buffs. Opera is a very expensive art form. It’s expensive to build an opera house. Expensive to staff an opera house. Not to mention the utilities.

Expensive to pay for a conductor and orchestra. The musicians undertake an expensive education. Play expensive instruments.

The singers train to do unusual things with the human voice, like how to sing a trill or hit a high C.

We dress fat singers in expensive—as well as expansive—consumes. Then we sit back.

What is all this for? To listen to chubby human beings emit certain tonal frequencies.

From a practical or naturalistic point of view, opera is one of the most useless expenditures of human resources that you can imagine.

What about from a Christian point of view? Well, opera is a fallen art form. The libretti are pretty decadent.

But bracketing that for one moment, there’s another side to opera. It applies God-given creativity (the composer, violin-maker) to God-given media (the voice).

There’s a sense in which fine art is a religious experience. It puts us in touch with God, because we are applying our divine creativity to divinely created media like light and sound and matter. It isn’t by any means redemptive. And it’s infected with sin. But it can be a genuine good. A mixture of good and evil, but with an element of natural goodness.

To take one example, there’s something distinctively feminine about a fine soprano voice. It projects a feminine ideal. And it’s not a purely subjective impression. It’s not something that the audience is merely projecting onto the sound. No, it’s reveals something about womanhood—something that God put there all along.

There is also the mysterious ability of music to create a tonal metaphor of human moods. The power of music both to invoke and evoke human moods.

That’s understandable from a Christian standpoint, where the sensible world is an emblem of the spiritual world. That is not nearly so comprehensible from an evolutionary standpoint.

vii) What about love? What do we discover when we discover love?

What is love? From a secular standpoint, love is a feeling which natural selection has programmed into us to make us genetic carriers. And that’s it.

I’m reminded of SF stories in which an android doesn’t know it’s an android. Take an androidal child. It was made for childless couples. There’s a company that manufactures androidal children for childless couples. They could have a child the old-fashioned way, but they prefer a designer child, a child that’s cobbled together according to their specifications. Sex. IQ. Personality. Appearance.

The android is implanted with false memories. Nostalgic memories. It “remembers” its parents. They put the androidal child to bed for the first time. It’s programmed to switch on. When it “wakes” up, it “remembers” its bedroom. It “remembers” having awakened before, having awakened in this very same bed all its “life.” It “remembers” its playmates next door.

It’s designed to eat and breathe and excrete. To laugh and cry. To feel a pulse. To feel emotion.

Then, one day, it suffers an accident. The accident exposes its circuitry. The android suddenly realizes that it’s not a human child after all.

Yet it has genuine feelings. Humanoid feelings. It loves its parents. Loves its friends.

But its feelings are indexed false memories. Implanted memories. A fictitious past. Simulated images.

According to natural selection, that’s what “love” really amounts to. Lower animals don’t know any better. But we’ve evolved to the point where we’ve become aware of our evolutionary conditioning. We’ve seen our circuitry. And it’s circuitry all the way down.

A carrier works best if he doesn’t know he’s just another, expendable carrier. If he discovers that he’s being used, to be disposed of once the mission is accomplished, he will resent the role he’s been assigned to perform. He will rebel. That’s why he must be kept in the dark. Fooled.

viii) Moreover, when you combine love with mortality, that creates a problem. The problem of lost loved ones. What about the people we used to love, but lost to death? The dearly departed? Parents and grandparents? The friends we outlive? The spouse we outlive?

To some extent you can try to replace people with other people, where a wife and kids take the place of dead parents and grandparents.

But loved ones aren’t really irreplaceable, aren’t they? Isn’t there something unique and unrepeatable about a loved one? And Parsons doesn’t have a promise like Rev 21:8 to cling to.

And surely one of the common features of human life is fragility of love. It’s mutability. Betrayal. Adultery. Friends that drift apart. Grow apart. Go their own way. Alienation between parent and child. Sibling rivalry.

The pursuit of love is a notorious source of human misery as well as emotional satisfaction. Of alcoholism, homicide, and suicide.

ix) From a Christian standpoint, we were also programmed to love each another. But we were designed that way. Designed by a wise and benevolent Creator.

In our case, love is good. There is such a thing as good. Love is a natural good.

What is more, human love, while good in its own right, also points to something beyond itself. Something greater than itself. It exemplifies divine love. Divine goodness.

It is not a projection or illusion, but a genuine discovery. The discovery of an objective property in nature. Mundane goodness as well as extramundane goodness, of which mundane goodness is a finite instance.

“Can Quentin Smith, or anyone, really expect us to believe that it does not matter for human beings whether or not there is more or less torture, genocide, holocausts, Gulags, or despotism? Again, if it matters for human beings, it matters.”

i) First of all, notice that Parsons is bluffing. This is not a refutation of Quentin Smith. Rather, it’s a tendentious denial, cloaked in emotive rhetoric. How dare Quentin say such a thing!

Parsons has offered no counterargument. Rather, he’s feigning indignation to conceal the absence of a counterargument.

ii) ”Matters” in what sense? Pain matters in the sense that we find pain and suffering unpleasant. But that, of itself, is not a moral concern.

And, yes, it matters to us at an emotional level. We dislike it.

But all this sidesteps the question of whether it ought to matter.

“Still, shouldn’t I have some choice in the matter? What if I do not care for God’s ‘wonderful’ plan for me? It is no good telling me that God is much wiser than I and that I should trust his plans for my life rather than make my own. I want to make my own plans—and I’ll willingly suffer the consequences of my own mistakes—rather than have a plan given to me, even if it is given by an infinitely wise and loving being. Being allowed to discover one’s own meaning in life and make one’s own choices seems to be essential to human dignity.”

i) To begin with, does an unbeliever really have a choice in the matter? From a secular standpoint, is Parsons really choosing his own destiny? Isn’t he the byproduct of physical determinism, genetic determinism, and social conditioning? Aren’t his choices the effects of his opportunities and desires? And aren’t his opportunities and desires the effects of a causal process concerning which he himself was not the cause, but rather, the end-result?

Naturalism is deterministic, but unplanned. We’re captive passengers, but there’s no one in the cockpit. Like it or not, Parsons is just along for the ride. There’s no escape hatch. And the plane has no destination. It will crash land, killing all the passengers.

ii) I suppose there’s a genuine sense in which an unbeliever can discover his own meaning in life. After all, Ted Bundy made a meaningful life for himself by murdering coeds and then indulging in necrophilia with the rotten corpses.

That’s a meaning we impose on life. A meaning extrinsic to reality. Playacting. Setting artificial goals.

Like a game of cards. We make the rules. Assign a conventional value to the cards. Assign a conventional value to the chips.

Jeffrey Dahmer is another exponent of Parsons’ philosophy. Dahmer had a purpose in life. A very enterprising young man. Very goal-oriented. Took the initiative. Didn’t wait around for heaven to mail him a wonderful plan for his life. A true hero of humanism. An example to us all.

“But, then, I observe that very many theists don’t really seem to get much meaning out of their religious activities. As Mark Twain observed, even an hour a week sitting in a pew is tedious for many believers. Having formerly been a church-goer myself, I used to notice that many would sigh, fidget, yawn, check their watches, and snooze during the minister’s homily—clearly anxious that church should end so that they could attend to the far more important matters of Sunday dinner and the big game.”

Of course, this says more about Parsons than it does about the Christian faith. And it helps explain why it was so easy for Parsons to walk away from the faith once delivered.

i) It’s true that many church services are bland and boring. That doesn’t have to be so. Here I think many evangelicals could learn a thing or two from the high-church tradition. Great art. Great music. Great poetry.

ii) But Parsons also suffers from a very compartmentalized view of “religious activities.” A religious isn’t limited to the four walls of the church. It doesn’t begin and end on Sunday morning. Just because Parsons is tone-deaf to God doesn’t mean the music of the spheres went silent.

iii) At the same time, we can’t expect heaven on earth. Not in this life. A fallen world will disappoint. It cannot be the ultimate source of personal fulfillment.

iv) He also confuses meaning with pleasure. There’s a sense in which the damned continue to lead meaningful lives. Retributive justice serves a purpose.

“Atheism is perfectly compatible with purpose in senses 2 and 3. An atheist can certainly feel a sense of ‘vocation,’ not, of course a literal ‘calling’ by God, but a sense that there is a confluence between a need that must be addressed, or some good to be done, and one's own talents, values, and personality. For some it might be a sense of calling to be a physician, for others a social worker, or a scientist. For me it was to become a university professor. On many occasions it would have been more convenient for me to have given up on this career and done something else, but my sense of ‘calling’ was so strong that I persevered, and it paid off.”

Not to mention Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer. They, too, had a strong sense of purpose. A goal in life. A reason to get out of bed. Something that got them through the day. The carrot at the end of the stick—although Dahmer was no vegetarian.

Bundy made full use of his talents, values, and personality. He was a talented guy. That came in very handy. He had a charming personality. That came in very handy. And he chose his own value system, which—as Parsons assures us—is essential to human dignity.

True, he suffered the consequences of his own mistakes—like the mistake of getting caught. But that’s the price you pay for self-fulfillment.

“Atheists also can endorse purpose in the Aristotelian sense. Aristotle held that, just as nature had fitted various creatures to function well in their particular niches in the economy of nature, so humans are fitted to function best in certain ways. According to Aristotle, humans are, by nature, social and rational beings. Therefore, we function optimally, and experience the most fulfillment and satisfaction, when we are living lives of reason and virtue in community with other human beings. There is no reason why atheism cannot accept Aristotle's claim that some ways of living are intrinsically and naturally the most fulfilling and valuable for human beings.”

Of course, this completely disregards the fact that Aristotelian natural law theory is grounded in Aristotelian natural theology. But once you deny teleological explanation in nature (a la methodological naturalism, not to mention metaphysical naturalism), then Aristotle’s teleological system of ethics goes out the window.

In naturalistic evolution, various creatures were never “fitted to function well in their particular niches.”

They have no natural function. That’s an ends/means concept. That smuggles directionality or intentionality into a secular framework which denies teleological categories.

That’s a tacit personification of nature. A Christian can get a way with that language for there is a person behind the process in Christian theism.

Parsons has been fudging every step of the way.


  1. Next, Please

    Philip Larkin

    Always too eager for the future, we
    Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
    Something is always approaching; every day
    Till then we say,

    Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear
    Sparkling armada of promises draw near.
    How slow they are! And how much time they waste,
    Refusing to make haste!

    Yet still they leave us holding wretched stalks
    Of disappointment, for, though nothing balks
    Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
    Each rope distinct,

    Flagged, and the figurehead with golden tits
    Arching our way, it never anchors; it's
    No sooner present than it turns to past.
    Right to the last

    We think each one will heave to and unload
    All good into our lives, all we are owed
    For waiting so devoutly and so long.
    But we are wrong:

    Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
    Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
    A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
    No waters breed or break.

  2. "What is love? From a secular standpoint, love is a feeling which natural selection has programmed into us to make us genetic carriers. And that’s it."

    It's interesting that you mention this, because I remember reading a post by an atheist who said, "There is a common tendency to associate atheism with a rejection of all abstract ideas. The assertion is that, as atheists reject something as abstract and non-substantive as a god, they dismiss similar difficult-to-quantify abstracts such as love.

    Nothing could be further from the truth. In general, most atheists adhere to empirical principles. There is a great deal of scientific evidence for the existence and experience of love."

    What are your thoughts on this? It sort of seems like he's just taking biological and chemical reactions and slapping the name "love" on them.

  3. I should tell Parsons I have all the answers to his questions:

    You're born
    You flounder
    You die
    The end... sucks to be you.

    Wow. I thought atheists were suppose to be so intellectual, or at least able to form logical arguements. Guess not.

    Re: Things of Beauty

    Classical music performed by a quality orchestra IS a thing of beauty.

    Opera... not so much! ;)