|A Holy Cow|
Tim was saying that he agreed with the original existentialists about how, from any external objective perspective, there’s no meaning to our lives, and meaning is something we create entirely for ourselves. And then he said something like, “The difference is that I don’t see why that’s a problem. Sure, I create my own meaning. So what? That’s fine with me. Sartre and Camus and that whole crowd thought this was a barely-tolerable psychological state that had to be struggled with on a daily basis… but I don’t see what the big deal is.”
I knew immediately what he meant. And I said something like, “I wonder if the difference is that they made up existentialism, it was totally new to them… but we grew up with it. The idea was already in the air. Even if you didn’t grow up in an intellectual household, the basic idea had already filtered down into the culture. So when we were figuring out the world and our place in it, existentialism just seemed normal.”To me, this is one of the most confusing things about the new atheism. This comfort with meaninglessness. It reminds me of talking with prostitutes and drug addicts. They say that it does not matter how painful or wrong something is, if you live with it for long enough it becomes acceptable. That is where we are at with existentialism.
When we say "meaning is something we create entirely for our ourselves" what does that imply? Any meaning we create is going to be pretty temporary and pretty shallow. So we have to avoid thinking big. Humans don't do that well. A cow can be happy eating grass and chewing its cud and never be bothered to think about eternity and changing the world. People have a desire for significance. Atheism asks us to be cows. Ultimate significance is unavailable. For most of us even a modestly impressive temporal significance is not going to happen. Just chew your cud and think about something else.
It gets worse. If our life is meaningless then what about other people's lives? What do they mean? Ultimately nothing. So why should I value another human life? I might feel bad when I hurt or kill another person but I have already learned how to think about something else. Why is this any different?
Does this mean atheists will go out and mistreat people? No. It just means the rational reason for not doing that is gone. There are other things like tradition and moral feelings that can work. They can fail to. Having a solid rational basis for moral behavior is important.
So I have been shocked by people like this Tim in the quote that can't see the big deal in saying there is no objective meaning in the life of a human person. You hear this all the time and even from educated people. Sartre and company at least got it. That if their theory was true that it was very bad news. That we might be able to have a little more pleasure or a little less pain before we die but that is the best we can do. Once we are dead even that does not matter because we cease to be.
It kind of makes Pascal's wager make sense. Even if such a philosophy were true is there any advantage to believe it? The answer is Yes but it is only Yes because that philosophy is not actually true. The reason to believe it is because we desire truth and cannot be satisfied with anything less. That is precisely the sort of human quirk you would not expect to find in a purely materialist world. There are many of them. So we have reasons to reject existentialism that go beyond simply finding it distasteful. I find the fact that the Detroit Lions are 4-7 distasteful. That does not make it false. But there is only virtue in believing hard facts if there is virtue at all. So if materialism is fact then facts don't matter. So Pascal is right then.