Sunday, February 11, 2018

Extragalactic creators

In this post I'm going to interact with Robert Nozick's contention that even if there is a God, the value of human existence isn't conferred by God. I believe Nozick was a secular Jew:

One prevalent view, less so today than previously, is that the meaning of life or people's existence is connected with God's will, with his design or plan for them. Put roughly, people's meaning is to be found and realized in fulfilling the role allotted to them by God. If a superior being designed and created people for a purpose, in accordance with a plan for them, the particular purpose he had for them would be what people are for. 

First, we should ask whether any and every role would provide meaning and purpose to human lives. If our role is to supply CO2 to the plants, or to be the equivalent within God's plan of fixing a mildly annoying leaky faucet, would this suffice?…Clearly, what is desired is that we be important; having merely some role or other in God's plan does not suffice. The purpose God has for us must place us at or near the center of things, of his intentions and goals. Moreover, merely playing some role in a central purpose of God's is not sufficient–the role itself must be a central or important one. 

Indeed, we want more than an important role in an important purpose; the role itself should be positive, perhaps even exalted. If the cosmic role of human beings was to provide a negative lesson to some others ("Don't act like them") or to provide needed food for passing intergalactic travelers who were important, this would not suit our aspirations…

There are two ways we individually or collectively could be included in God's plan. First, our fulfilling our role might depend upon our acting in a certain way, upon our choices or cooperation; second, our role might not depend at all upon our actions or choices–willy-nilly we shall serve…About the first way we can ask why we should act to fulfill God's plan, and about both ways we can ask why fitting God's plan gives meaning to our existence. That God is good (but also sometimes angry?) shows that would be good to carry out his plan. (Even then, perhaps, it need not be good for us–mightn't the good overall plan involve sacrificing us for some greater good?) Yet how does doing good provide meaning?

How can playing a role in God's plan give one's life meaning? What makes this a meaning-giving process? It is not merely that some being created us with a purpose in mind. If some extragalatic civilization created us with a purpose in mind, would that by itself provide meaning to our lives? Nor would things be changed if they created us so that we also had a feeling of indebtedness and a feeling that something was asked of us. It seems it is not enough that God have some purpose for us–his purpose itself must be meaningful. If it were sufficient merely to play some role in some external purpose, then you could give meaning to your life by fitting it to my plans or to your parents' purpose in having you. In these instances, however, one immediately questions the meaningfulness of the other people's purposes. How do God's purposes differ from ours so as to be guaranteed meaningfulness and and importance? 

The purposes parents have when they plan to have children…do not fix the obligations of the child…He is under no obligation to cooperate, he is not owned by his parents even though they made him. Once the child exists, it has certain rights that must be respected (and other rights it can assert when able)…Nor do children owe to their parents whatever they would have conceded in bargaining before conception (supposing this had been possible) in order to come into existence. Since children don't owe their parents everything that leaves their lives still a net plus, why do people owe their ultimate creator and sustainer any more?…We don't cost an omnipotent God anything, there's nothing to pay back to him and so no need to. 

Once you come to feel your existence lacks purpose, there is little you can do…The task required all of my knowledge, skill, intuitive powers, and craftsmanship. It seemed to me that my whole existence until then had been merely a preparation for this creative activity, so completely did it draw upon and focus all of my experience, abilities, and knowledge. I was excited by the task and fulfilled, and when it was completed I rested, untroubled by purposelessness. 

But this contentment was, unfortunately, only temporary. For when I came to think about it, although it had taxed my ingenuity and energy to make the heavens, the earth, and the creatures upon it, what did it all amount to?…For my sole purpose then was to give meaning to my existence…Such questions press me toward the alternative I tremble to contemplate, yet to which I find my thoughts recurring. The option of ending it all…To imagine God himself facing problems about the meaningfulness of his existence forces us to consider how meaning attaches to his purposes…For if it were possible for man and God to shore up each other's meaningfulness in this fashion, why could not two people do this for each other as well? 

Nor will it help us to escalate up a level, and say that if there is a God who has a plan for us, the meaning of our existence consists in finding out what this plan asks of us and has in store for us. 

What is it about God's purposes that makes them meaningful? If our universe were created by a child from some other vast civilization in a parallel universe, if our universe were a toy it had constructed, perhaps out of prefabricated parts, it would not follow that the child's purposes were meaningful. E. Klemke & S. Cahn, eds. The Meaning of Life: A Reader (Oxford, 3rd. ed., 2008), chap. 19. 

1. Nozick fails to distinguish between purpose, gratitude and/or obligation. In some cases they're separable and in some cases they can be combined.

For instance, suppose a country is in a fight for national survival. It sends a special ops unit on a suicide mission. If the unit succeeds, that will turn the tide in the war effort. However, the military doesn't tell the unit that they are going on a suicide mission.

On the one hand, their mission is clearly purposeful. They won't die in vain. Their actions saved their nation. 

On the other hand, the fact that they were used and deceived as expendable pawns means they have no grounds to be grateful or dutiful to their superiors.

In principle, they might still be grateful for the opportunity to save their nation. And they might have knowingly volunteered for a suicide mission, if it had a good chance of success and was pivotal in the fortunes of the war effort. 

ii) A sense of indebtedness is essential to social life. That intuition runs deep. But it's complex.

If a doctor or a lifeguard saves my life, I'm grateful, yet my gratitude is limited by the fact that he was just doing his job. 

If a stranger saves my life, I'm inclined to be more grateful.

If a stranger risks his own life to save mine, I'm even more grateful. 

To take another comparison, teenage boys have been known to perform dumb pranks. Suppose a student squirts water into the locker of another student. Suppose that after the prankster turns around, he sees a security camera trained on that bank of lockers. He's now afraid he'll be expelled.

In panic, he seeks out a classmate who's a computer whiz to hack into the system and delete the incriminated footage. This is a classmate he normally makes fun of as a hopeless nerd. 

Suppose the geeky classmate agrees. The prankster should be grateful for several reasons: 

i) He got out of trouble

ii) He got out of trouble even though he did something wrong

iii) A classmate did him a favor

iv) The classmate who did him a favor wasn't his friend

It's possible to get into trouble even when you did nothing wrong. In that situation, it's a relief to get out of trouble.

If, however, you deserve to be punished, but you're given a second chance, then that's a reason to be grateful. 

Likewise, if someone treats you better than you treated them, if they help you out in a bind, then that's a reason to be grateful–since you're getting better than you deserve.

2. Filial duty is limited for a variety of reasons: Parents are humans just like us. They're just a few steps ahead of us on the lifecycle. But they're not superior beings. Moreover, that's how they came into the world, too. 

3. Are the alien creators intellectually superior or merely technologically superior?

i) Even if they're intellectually superior, they're still finite beings who exist on the same continuum we do. 

ii) More to the point, superior intelligence doesn't imply superior wisdom. 

iii) Furthermore, obligation and gratitude depend on whether a creator is benevolent or malevolent. Take engineers (bionics, genetic engineering) who make a race of supersoldiers. The engineers aren't acting in the interests of the supersoldiers, who are expendable by design. 

4. I don't think the significance of individual human lives depends on being at the center of God's plan or having a central role to play. Rather, it's sufficient that we be occupied by things that are suitable to the nature God has given us. Fixing drippy faucets hardly fulfills our social, emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic capacities. It has to be at the level of our natural endowment and potential. 

5. Nozick's denial notwithstanding, why can't the meaning of our existence consist in discovering God's plan for our lives? For predestinarian traditions, God is like a novelistic who creates the characters, setting, and plot. 

In the case of the elect, although life in a fallen world may be full of anguish, we are buoyed by the hope that eventually the worst will be behind us with nothing but good in store for all eternity. Every day I wake up with that expectation. Another day on the journey towards that destination. So long as I know God has a good plan for my life, then that gives me something to look forward to. Each day has it's surprises. God wrote that role just for me. It's a far more satisfying life than I could improvise on my own. 

6. The specter of a god who creates in order to make his own existence meaningful dovetails with the anthropomorphic god of open theism.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting counter points to Nozick. If I remember right Nagel has made similar arguments.