Monday, August 11, 2008

Clarifying the State of Affairs

Although geocentric cosmology has been abandoned for centuries, its philosophical analogue pitifully persists even today in the solipsistic and speciocentric thinking exhibited by persons of varied theological (and atheological) persuasions. The delusive notion of which I write can be understood as two intertwined components: (a) The cosmos is purposeful and (b) our meager species is of central importance to this purpose. Steven Weinberg, an American physicist and Nobel laureate, once observed, “In the same way that each of us has had to learn in growing up to resist the temptation of wishful thinking about ordinary things like lotteries, so our species has had to learn in growing up that we are not playing a starring role in any sort of grand cosmic drama.” The present composition is submitted as a corrective to human ego with respect to matters cosmic.

The first, and most important, realization to which a thinking person must come is that the cosmos—by all evidentiary indications—is purposeless and dispassionate…striving toward no goal, operating with no aim, hoping for no particular result. Some commentators have called the cosmos an immoral place or, in my own case, an unjust one; to do so is mistaken. “Good” and “evil”…“just” and “unjust”…“moral” and “immoral” are judgments that cannot be made in the absence of purpose; to declare the universe an evil place is equally ludicrous as judging one’s car to be wicked or one’s computer to be morally wretched. The cosmos’ utter indifference precludes all such characterizations.

Even if the universe does have a purpose—and there is not a single credible reason to believe that is the case—there are no grounds to suppose that humans are part of it. The universe, whose estimated age is 13.73 billion years (plus or minus 120 million years), long preceded Homo sapiens sapiens (estimated age: perhaps 100,000 years), a species that is a newcomer even on Earth, which itself is a tiny, long-forgotten-about speck of stardust. Indeed, Earth is just one of, conservatively, a billion billion planets strewn about the cosmos. The folly of thinking Earth to be cosmically important is exceeded only by imagining one’s own species to be so.

Let us make a few things clear. If a global pandemic were to strike tomorrow, and the entire human race were rendered extinct in 30 days, “indifference” would vastly overstate the cosmos’ concern with such a development. Bertrand Russell, a thinker who courageously rejected the temptations of human ego, remarked in “A Free Man's Worship” (1903) that it is very nearly certain “That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins….” The upshot, of course, is that, although our day-to-day travails seem to be of great importance, none of our deeds, nor anything that happens to us, is of any enduring cosmic significance. One day our solar system shall end, and it shall be as if none of us ever existed.

Must, then, we be consigned to a life of despair? I think not. Recognizing our place in the grand scheme—a place of supreme insignificance—does little to diminish the pleasures one may experience. The triviality of our existence, as a species and as individuals, does not make, for example, family vacations any less pleasurable. It does not make a joke any less funny. It does not make a swimming pool any less refreshing, nor does it lessen the succulence of a juicy steak.

Yes, we are subject to an uncaring, unfeeling universe. Yes, we are utterly impotent when faced with inevitable death. Yes, all our achievements and pleasures are fleeting, much like our existence as a sentient life form. However, our species would be in a sorry state, indeed, if mere recognition of this basic truth were to doom us to a life of despair.

The neophyte to issues scientific and philosophical should not let the abstruseness toward which these conversations tend leave him at a loss. There is but one life we have been afforded. I urge readers to live it to the maximum, wringing pleasure from wherever it can be wrung.

One never knows when the chaos out of which the cosmos formed might again reign supreme.

17 Comments:

Blogger Tommy said...

Hey Jolly. Good to see another post from you. I posted the comments below on Brian's Primordial Blog, but it seems somewhat relevant here too:

This reminds me of a blurb that appears at the beginning of Chapter 3 of Julian Simon's The Ultimate Resource 2:

A professor giving a lecture on energy declares that the world will perish in seven billion years' time because the sun will then burn out. One of the audience becomes very agitated, asks the professor to repeat what he said, and then, completely reassured, heaves a sigh of relief, "Phew! I thought he said seven million years!"

12:27 AM EDT  
Blogger John Morales said...

I urge readers to live it to the maximum, wringing pleasure from wherever it can be wrung.
What about some sensible moderation?

6:36 AM EDT  
Blogger Rhology said...

However, our species would be in a sorry state, indeed, if mere recognition of this basic truth were to doom us to a life of despair...

I urge readers to live it to the maximum, wringing pleasure from wherever it can be wrung.


Why? Aren't you somewhat out of step with more celebrated atheistic writers like Sartre and Camus? (But perhaps that doesn't bother you.)

9:01 AM EDT  
Blogger Tommy said...

Aren't you somewhat out of step with more celebrated atheistic writers like Sartre and Camus?

Naahh! Couple of ennui filled French snobs! We're American atheists!

12:41 PM EDT  
Blogger Tommy said...

One little quibble Jolly:

...Earth, which itself is a tiny, long-forgotten-about speck of stardust.

Forgotten by whom?

12:43 PM EDT  
Blogger Rhology said...

Forgotten by whom?

LOL. Nice.

ennui-filled

MMMmmmm, I love a nice warm buttery croissant spread with some ennui and foie gras.

12:49 PM EDT  
Blogger Rhology said...

John,

What's sensible for one man is ridiculous, or slothful, for another.

12:51 PM EDT  
Blogger The Jolly Nihilist said...

John,

Good to hear from you.

With respect to seeking pleasure, I abide by the Zero Aggression Principle, which states that one may not initiate aggression against another. If a possible source of pleasure does not involve initiating aggression, why be shy about exploiting it? That, at least, works for me.


Rhology,

You have selected well among prominent irreligious thinkers; Sartre and Camus both have been influential on my views. However, I conform my views to nothing except the evidence and what makes sense to me.

I see no sense in the following thinking: We eventually shall die and the universe eventually shall end. Therefore, we might as well be miserable.

Clearly, humans are capable of being happy. Whether we are immortal or not, we might as well be happy.

The contrary is like taking a trip to Orlando and then reasoning thus: Disney World eventually will close for the night; it will not stay open in perpetuity. Therefore, we might as well not go to Disney World at all.

It makes not a bit of sense to me.


Tommy,

You are correct, of course.

Sometimes, as you well know, when a writer attempts to be artful and stylish in his phrasing, the factual clarity is sacrificed. There is no literal consciousness who has forgotten about Earth; I merely mean to say nothing is concerned with Earth's fate, except, perhaps, the parasites crawling about on its surface.

2:17 PM EDT  
Blogger Rhology said...

Whether we are immortal or not, we might as well be happy.

But it is equally correct to say "Whether we are immortal or not, we might as well be miserable."

You just don't want to be miserable, but you don't have any rational reason to choose one over the other, right?

2:20 PM EDT  
Blogger Tommy said...

Sometimes, as you well know, when a writer attempts to be artful and stylish in his phrasing, the factual clarity is sacrificed.

Thanks. I figured as much.

2:38 PM EDT  
Blogger Lvka said...

I urge readers to live it to the maximum, wringing pleasure from wherever it can be wrung.

Wisdom 2:1  For the ungodly said, reasoning with themselves, but not aright, Our life is short and tedious, and in the death of a man there is no remedy: neither was there any man known to have returned from the grave. 2  For we are born at all adventure: and we shall be hereafter as though we had never been: for the breath in our nostrils is as smoke, and a little spark in the moving of our heart: 3  Which being extinguished, our body shall be turned into ashes, and our spirit shall vanish as the soft air, 4  And our name shall be forgotten in time, and no man shall have our works in remembrance, and our life shall pass away as the trace of a cloud, and shall be dispersed as a mist, that is driven away with the beams of the sun, and overcome with the heat thereof. 5  For our time is a very shadow that passeth away; and after our end there is no returning: for it is fast sealed, so that no man cometh again. 6  Come on therefore, let us enjoy the good things that are present: and let us speedily use the creatures like as in youth. 7  Let us fill ourselves with costly wine and ointments: and let no flower of the spring pass by us: 8  Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds, before they be withered:
9  Let none of us go without his part of our voluptuousness: let us leave tokens of our joyfulness in every place: for this is our portion, and our lot is this.

3:12 PM EDT  
Blogger Tommy said...

Let us fill ourselves with costly wine

Sorry, but I'm on a budget.

3:14 PM EDT  
Blogger The Jolly Nihilist said...

But it is equally correct to say "Whether we are immortal or not, we might as well be miserable."

You just don't want to be miserable, but you don't have any rational reason to choose one over the other, right?


For myself, I have a very rational reason for seeking happiness rather than misery: I strongly prefer to be happy as opposed to being miserable.

But, yes, speaking generally, there is nothing to proscribe the seeking of misery if one is misguided enough to do such.

6:45 PM EDT  
Blogger Rhology said...

Misguided? By whom?
The use of the prefix "mis" implies that there is correct guidance to be had. What is it, and how do you know? And how do you know it's right?

I sense your hand nearing the precipice, ready to plunge into the cookie jar. Again. Why can't you just be consistent? Does it hurt too much? Scare you?

7:54 PM EDT  
Blogger The Jolly Nihilist said...

Misguided? By whom?
The use of the prefix "mis" implies that there is correct guidance to be had. What is it, and how do you know? And how do you know it's right?

I sense your hand nearing the precipice, ready to plunge into the cookie jar. Again. Why can't you just be consistent? Does it hurt too much? Scare you?


It is very clear that evolution has programmed our species, generally speaking, with certain inclinations. Just about every human is programmed to desire sex, for example. Just about every human is programmed to desire the company of fellow humans, as another example. Yet a third example is the human imperative to seek happiness and pleasure, whilst avoiding misery and pain.

The reason certain things, such as touching a hot burner, hurt, is because evolutionary forces are seeking to dissuade us from doing things that are harmful to our wellbeing. Pain is one of nature's key ways of dissuading humans from certain behavior.

There is no analogous evolutionary imperative to seek pain, misery and unhappiness. As such, those who do are clearly aberrant among their fellows.

8:19 PM EDT  
Blogger Rhology said...

It is very clear that evolution has programmed our species, generally speaking, with certain inclinations.

Ah. So, the mutations are random. Natural selection is blind and unguided. And now organisms are "programmed" in an unguided process.
Seriously, would it kill you to find some other words than the ones that in all other cases describe products of design in order to express yourself?

But you didn't answer the question.
Obviously, there's no "whom", so OK. But how do you know this guidance is right? Your use of "mis" makes me ask it. You could withdraw the word "misguided" and substitute sthg else and make it all better, but I'm questioning your grounds.

Is your answer this?
Pain is one of nature's key ways of dissuading humans from certain behavior.

Pain is also the key way for many people to make sense of their existence. Psychological pain, even physical pain. Cutting themselves. Killing themselves. Suicide by cop. Women who can't leave the man who beats them up all the time. Evolution selected for these people too, you know.


There is no analogous evolutionary imperative to seek pain, misery and unhappiness.

Why not misery or unhappiness?

Also, I'm curious about this statement:

I see no sense in the following thinking: We eventually shall die and the universe eventually shall end. Therefore, we might as well be miserable.

What about:
I see no sense in the following thinking: We eventually shall die and the universe eventually shall end. Therefore, nothing matters and I can do as I please so far as I am able and not successfully forcibly restrained from such.

8:27 AM EDT  
Blogger The Jolly Nihilist said...

If this, at base, is purely a question of semantics, then this discussion is considerably less fruitful than I hoped. Nevertheless, I intend to provide some clarity vis-à-vis your concerns.


Ah. So, the mutations are random. Natural selection is blind and unguided. And now organisms are "programmed" in an unguided process.
Seriously, would it kill you to find some other words than the ones that in all other cases describe products of design in order to express yourself?


Again, this is just semantics. Yes, natural selection is a blind process, with no prevision of what it shall produce. Yes, each mutation acted upon arises randomly—not because some mutation would be useful and, so, it occurs. However, natural selection does not operate in a chaotic, capricious fashion. Rather, it guides organisms to be suited to their respective environments. In this sense, natural selection “programmed” or “designed” human beings. There simply is no conscious, willful programmer or designer.


But you didn't answer the question.
Obviously, there's no "whom", so OK. But how do you know this guidance is right? Your use of "mis" makes me ask it. You could withdraw the word "misguided" and substitute sthg else and make it all better, but I'm questioning your grounds.


When you ask how I know this guidance is “right,” I think you are forgetting what I actually wrote. I said, “But, yes, speaking generally, there is nothing to proscribe the seeking of misery if one is misguided enough to do such.” In the sentence in question, I explicitly rejected the idea that one course of action must be taken whereas the other is forbidden. Rather, I appealed to the near-universal human nature, which causes the vast majority of people to be motivated by the desire for happiness. If 99.6% of people are guided by human nature, then the aberrant 0.4% could be characterized as “misguided,” I think.


Pain is also the key way for many people to make sense of their existence. Psychological pain, even physical pain. Cutting themselves. Killing themselves. Suicide by cop. Women who can't leave the man who beats them up all the time. Evolution selected for these people too, you know.

Your list contains several unanalogous items. People who cut themselves often are suffering from a mental disorder of some type, whereby pain makes them feel real…feel existent. Again, pain-desiring “cutters” are aberrant; most people are not motivated by, and do not seek out, pain. As regards suicide, again, this often is related to mental disorders. And, more importantly, for the suicidal, killing themselves often is an attempt to escape from what they consider to be life’s pain and misery. Far from running toward pain and suffering, suicides are running from it. And, with respect to battered spouses, precious few of them are motivated by, and trying to seek, pain and suffering. They simply delude themselves into believing the situation shall improve, or things would be worse if they left their abusive partner. Again, they seem to be motivated by a desire for happiness, as opposed to one for misery.


Why not misery or unhappiness?

At root, natural selection programs us to survive as long as possible so we can have as many offspring as possible: In the last analysis, this is about propagating one’s genes. If one is curled up in a misery- and depression-induced ball, one cannot copulate and produce offspring (and one is likely to die sooner rather than later). It is human nature to seek happiness and pleasure. Even those who would deny themselves earthly pleasures, such as the devoutly religious, still are motivated by the promise of happiness and pleasure in the eternal life they believe is forthcoming. Those moved by a genuine desire for misery seem about as rare as those born with four digits per hand do.


What about:
I see no sense in the following thinking: We eventually shall die and the universe eventually shall end. Therefore, nothing matters and I can do as I please so far as I am able and not successfully forcibly restrained from such.


I have never denied that I reject the superstition of objective morality, but have stated it clearly. Therefore, I cannot condemn such thinking on factual, objective grounds. However, I certainly may say it smacks of egocentrism. That is, it illustrates an individual putting his own desires far ahead of anybody else’s desires, despite the fact that each of us is intrinsically equal to every other. After all, we are all humans…Homo sapiens sapiens…and there is no scientific or logical basis for saying one person’s desires override those of another person. Thus, when somebody thinks the way you have suggested, he baselessly, senselessly is awarding himself superiority to his fellows. And that is an exercise in brainless solipsism, as far as I am concerned.

11:12 AM EDT  

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