Friday, January 16, 2009

Secular sandcastles

“An argument frequently deployed in popular attacks on atheism is the claim that atheism makes life meaningless. Without God, without a transcendent source of meaning and purpose, human life amounts to little more than the life of a flea, so the argument goes.”

Gee, how did Christians ever form such a terrible misimpression of atheism? Oh, I remember. It’s because, in moments of unguarded candor, some secular thinkers have been telling us that life without God is meaningless. That’s one good reason.

I know that Parsons is ignorant of basic Bible scholarship. Is he equally ignorant of what his fellow atheists have said?

He follows this up with a quote from the 2nd edition of Craig’s Reasonable Faith—which goes to show that Parsons is too lazy to keep up with the competition. The 3rd edition was issued last year.

After quoting from this dated source, he then treats the reader to this outburst:

“My first reaction is that his objection seems to be motivated by a monumental degree of egotism. What possible excuse could you have for thinking that you are of such transcendent importance that you should be an exception to cosmic law and that you should survive when planets, stars, and galaxies are gone? Yes, says atheism, it is a fact: Someday the cosmos will be forced to confront the stark reality that you are no more. Amazingly, it will continue to tick along almost exactly as it did before. Your absence from the universe will matter about as much in the whole scheme of things as the removal of a single grain of sand from the Sahara. Deal with it.”

Well, my first reaction is that Parsons would make a lousy grief counselor. Imagine what he’d say to an 8-year-old who lost his mother in a traffic accident:

Look, you little twerp, you need to get over your monumental egotism. The universe doesn’t revolve around the feelings of a whinny little orphan. Do you think your mommy should be an exception to cosmic law? Someday the cosmos will be forced to confront the stark reality that you, too, will stink up the grave just—like your dead mother. Amazingly, the universal will get along just fine without you or your mommy. Your mommy’s death means about as much in the grand scheme of things as the removal of a single grain of sand from the Sahara. Deal with it!”

Beyond my initial reaction, I also have some afterthoughts. Notice that Parsons is trying to shame the reader into submission rather than reasoning with the reader.

It’s also a rather ironic exercise. Think about it. What makes Mr. Parsons so monumentally egotistical to imagine that we should frame our lives with a view to avoiding his personal disapproval?

And isn’t it rather absurd to say someone is monumentally egotistical for feeling despair at the prospect of his oblivion? After all, if Parsons didn’t exist, he’d be in no position to attack egotism, whether monumental or miniature.

I mean, if you want to put it in such terms, yes…I suppose there’s something irreducibly egotistical about wanting to exist, wanting to be me. Something irreducibly egotistical about having an ego, having a self. Shame can only be felt by the living, not the dead—if there is no afterlife.

Appeal to cosmic law begs the question of whether death is a cosmic necessity. And his statement about how nothing we think or say or do will make any lasting difference in the great scheme of things is precisely one of the reasons that atheism, if true, would void human existence of meaning.

Why does he bother to blog or teach or publish books? He is building sandcastles at low tide. How much time and effort should we invest in a kingdom of sandcastles? Isn’t the exercise inherently frivolous?

Suppose your sandcastle is an architectural masterpiece while mine is a slapdash affair. Your sandcastle is one of the seven wonders of the world. The all-time greatest sandcastle. What difference does it make? Hours of painstaking toil, flattened in minutes.

Of course, there’s a value in remembering the past. But that requires the services of someone to remember it. The dead have short memories—if there is no afterlife.


  1. Eh. For you, meaning can only come from the top down. For me, meaning evolves from the bottom up. But as long as you behave nicely, more power to you.

    cheer from icy Vienna, zilch

  2. Zilch,

    Ultimately, if we are to be consistent naturalists, your "meaning" must be explained in terms of the meaningless, non-purposive, and non-teleological. And that's at best. For some more consistent naturalists, such folk locutions ought to be eliminated. Of course, you will say that you give your life its own meaning. But of course this raises other questions. What does it even mean to say that? Isn't there some irreducible subjectivity going on? A "what it is like" for something to be meaningful for you? But how does irreducible subjectivity comport with a view that claims all is irreducibly objective? All is subject to scientific investigation? Furthermore, allegedly you believe certain things are meaningful, but how do beliefs qua positive cognitive attitudes make sense? Moreover, I assume these beliefs about what is meaningful to you cause you to act. But what does that mean? How do immaterial things cause things to happen in a closed system? Of course you might identify beliefs with neurons, but that seems, just, well, odd. Beliefs seem to have properties that neurons or other physical structures don't have. And, let's not even start on what it means to talk about "behaving nicely" in a naturalistic view of the world. I assume it also gets reduced to something non-normative. Neither nice nor non-nice. So, of course you'll have to forgive us for not standing around slack-jawed at your statements intending to show how you can be an intellectually and morally fulfilled human being given other beliefs you hold. Beliefs even you know seem somewhat incompatible with a Darwinist view of the world.