Monday, October 31, 2005

Thinking in Action

In search of "popular philosophy", I have decided to read some volumes in the Routledge series, Thinking in Action, edited by Simon Critchley and Richard Kearney. I recommend Michael Dummett, On Immigration and Refugees, but it is too political to be examined here. (Dummett is famous for giving up work on Frege: Philosophy of Language to fight against racism in Britain, returning only when he was sure he had failed. The preface to the Frege book is painful to read.)

The series offers many possibilities. I was tempted by Zizek's On Belief, but it has already been pilloried by John Holbo. Instead, I settled on two: On Humanism, by Richard Norman, and On the Meaning of Life. (Further volumes that may be of interest to this audience: On Anxiety and On the Internet.)

On Humanism is a nice corrective to Straw Dogs. For Norman, "humanism" is not blind faith in progress, or in some radical difference between us and other animals, but, principally, belief in ethics without God. This a pretty modest conviction, I think. The style is sober and unpretentious. Not much here will be new to philosophers: a critical review of standard arguments for the existence of God, an attack on the "divine command theory" of morals, a survey of utilitarianism and objections to it. The book would make a good introduction to philosophy – although, in that role, it could do with a guide to further reading.

It is not flawless. In rejecting God, Norman assumes that a belief is unjustified unless we can provide a reason for it that would apply to others. He does not acknowledge the notorious difficulties in meeting this foundationalist demand. For instance, in questioning religious experience, he argues that knowledge of the content of perception always depends on having "reliable independent grounds" by which to establish its cause. This could be the premise of a valid argument for scepticism about the five senses. It is therefore not a good premise to use in argument against belief in God.

The more interesting claim, anyway, is that we can make sense of ethics without God. Norman gives the usual objections to the divine command theory: if God's commands are not arbitrary, they must appeal to an independent standard of right and wrong; and it is in any case bad to be motivated by mere commands, or out of fear punishment and desire for reward. You might think that no-one holds so crude a view, but I can point to at least one: my geographical forebear, John Clarke of Hull (1687-1734). In an accounting of the most influential philosophers to come from my home town, he would, unfortunately, be first. His brief glory was to have been refuted by Francis Hutcheson – though it is a tribute to the retrograde character of British philosophy that he was taken seriously at all.

The best part of Norman's book is the final chapter, which begins with a puzzling fact.
Looking back [...], I cannot escape the feeling that everything I have said is obvious. [...] That view sits uneasily alongside the recognition that most of [it] would be rejected by most human beings, now and throughout history.
If it is apparent to Norman, and to me, that there can be ethics without God, why has it been orthodox to assume otherwise? He doesn't really attempt to resolve this quandary, and perhaps it lies outside his, and my, expertise. Let the sociologists go to work. But I can't resist a speculation. God seems necessary, I think, not directly for ethics, but for life to have meaning. (Ethics would be threatened by the death of God only if, as I doubt, it depends upon the meaning of life.) If atheists like me want to make sense of the moral-philosophical significance of religious belief, it is this inscrutable question that we must address.


Anonymous wmr said...

I am confused by your last paragraph. If you mean that believers feel that God gives meaning to their lives, then I agree but I don't see how that can be an argument for the existence of a god. If they assert that without God there can be no meaning to life and that atheists who feel their life has meaning are mistaken, then they are pulling the "No True Scotsman" wheeze and the burden of proof is on them.

Examples of atheists who felt that their lives had meaning include the Marxists who believed that History was the source of meaningfulness.

Why they feel that only God can give meaning to human life is a psychological question, not a philosophical question.

On the issue of "reliable independent grounds" for religious belief, my attitude is that you can believe whatever you like, but you should have to justify what you teach the children. If children weren't brainwashed into religious belief, God would join Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

2:09 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

I didn't mean to assert that life has no meaning without God: that seems to me an open question.

In the background of my post is uncertainty or unclarity about what it would be for life to have meaning. (It surely is not just a matter of whether we feel that our lives have meaning.)

Without a decent sense of the content of claims about the meaning of life, the connection with God is hard to assess. I do think that the idea of such a connection is sufficiently robust to make it worth investigating, whatever the burden of proof.

2:29 PM  
Anonymous Ian said...


I have a post on what-is-called "the meaning of life" that might be of interest to you.

8:54 AM  
Blogger gregates said...

"God seems necessary, I think, not directly for ethics, but for life to have meaning."

Having been raised Catholic (in Catholic schools no less, with a couple of surprisingly good religion teachers), but having always had the somewhat skeptical disposition necessary for philosophy, I spent a good deal of time in high school trying to figure out exactly why one ought to believe in God. The reason I came to was precisely the one that you find to be obviously wrong: I believed that, without God, there could be no ethics.

I even wrote an essay about this when I was applying for a scholarship for college. Unfortunately I do not remember exactly how the argument went, but I can assure you that what I was arguing for was precisely that without God there could be no morality, not that life would be in some way "meaningless."

I think the arbitrariness of a divine command theory did not strike me at the time is because I failed importantly in my thinking to distinguish between what it would be for there to be moral facts and what it would take for us to know what they were. I was convinced that the problem was epistemological; that divine testimony was the only possible source of knowledge of moral truth. So the problem of why we should obey God's law did not come up for me. There was never really any question about whether there were moral facts. The question was really about how to live, and the answer was: in accordance with the divine command, because how else could we know how we should live?

I now think this view is stupid, but my hope is that you can see how it might have been adopted by a confused teenager. I guess it might still be appropriate to say that I was worried life might be "meaningless," if you hear "meaningless" as something like "directionless."

4:41 PM  
Anonymous wmr said...

Ian and Kieran--

IMO, the idea that something has meaning is a non-starter. People use things, including words, to carry meanings, but the meanings are in the people, not in the things. If a word possesses a meanining in itself, then why did the word "gay" suddenly decide to mean 'homosexual' in addition to - or instead of - 'full of or showing high-spirited merriment' etc.

On a personal note, I don't feel that my life is particularly meaningful, but I know that my wife feels that my life is meaningful. So, different strokes.

To sum up, I don't share your opinion that there is something here worth investigating.

5:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A small comment to wmr, which supports your larger argument:

The word "gay" did not suddenly come to mean "homosexual". The OED lists the first recorded use of the word in this sense in the prison slang, "geycat", for homosexual boy, in 1935. Before that, the word "gay" was used to describe loose or immoral women, from at least 1825. And before that, the word was used to refer to someone addicted to social pleasures and dissipation, from at least 1637. (Reference to OED Online Edition, consulted 2 Nov 2005).

We, of a certain culture, time, and class, may think the meaning of the word changed suddenly. But that is not in fact the case.

4:29 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Presumably, the meanings of words are in some sense conventional. But people who wonder about the meaning of life need not be confused about that. There are other senses of "meaning".

In general, I take it as a default position, in doing philosophy, that if an issue has seemed gripping to many, there is probably something there – at the very least a tempting or interesting mistake, not an elementary blunder.

11:08 AM  
Anonymous wmr said...

I don't know whether that was intended as a slapdown, but I am notoriously bad at reading hints, so I will poke my nose in again.

All I said was that I do not share your opinion; I made - and make - no judgements on anyone else's pursuing such an investigation.

As you say, people "need not be confused" by this, but they may be all the same. You admitted earlier to an "uncertainty or unclarity about what it would be for life to have meaning". I was attempting in my admittedly small way to remove one point of unclarity.

Finally, when you say "life", do you mean life as in the biological phenomenon, comprising everything from bacteria to whales, or as in a single human life - or something else?

5:28 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

I didn't mean to be abrupt or dismissive. In fact, I thought it was the other way around: I read you as rejecting the topic of life's meaning as a "non-starter", and I wanted to explain why – although I don't know quite how to make sense of the question – it strikes me as worth thinking about. I'll try to say more in another post, though I cannot promise to get very far.

5:53 PM  
Anonymous wmr said...

Thanks for the feedback. I see that I need to do more work on my wording before I write about this again.

11:29 AM  
Anonymous Kris McDaniel said...

Suppose that you or someone you know has just had a baby. You look at that newborn baby lying in his crib, and you feel a tremendous love for that baby. You say to yourself, "I love this new person so much. I hope that his life goes well for him. I hope that he has a good life."

Suppose you are nearing the end of your life, and you are looking back on your life. You are considering how it went. You say to yourself, "I have lived a good life. I am perhaps not thrilled that it will soon end, but my life has been worth living."

I think I have the concept of a good life, of a life worth living. One of the main projects in ethics should be to give an account of what makes a life worth living. (And what makes for a bad life, or a life not worth living. Think of all the people in the world who have suffered so terribly that we think that (perhaps) they would have been better off had they never been born. We have the concept of a bad life as well.) It seems to me that this concept is connected in interesting and significant ways with other "moral" or "normative" concepts, such as the concepts of benefit or harm: one benefits someone when one makes her life *better* than it was, one harms someone when one makes her life *worse* than it was before.
And accordingly the concept of a good life is connected to the concepts of right and wrong, since it's at least prima facie wrong to harm someone, and prima facie morally permissible to benefit someone. The concept of a good life might also be connected with other moral concepts, such as the concept of a just society. I can envision someone making a case for the claim that a just society is a society in which everyone is gauranteed the same opportunties to have good lives.

The concept of a meaningful life seems harder to me to grasp than the concept of a good life. Maybe this is just me, but it seems more elusive. I have a harder time seeing how the concept of a meaningful life connects up with other moral or normative concepts in the same way that the concept of a good life seems to connect.

I don't want to simply dismiss talk about having a meaningful life, since I agree with Kieran that we should take as our starting point the view that if an issue has seemed gripping to many, there is probably something there. But I am troubled by the elusiveness of this concept.

Maybe one way to help someone like myself grasp the concept of a meaningful life would be to explain how this concept relates to other concepts that I antecendently grasp. For example, how is the concept of a meaningful life different from the concept of a good life? (They don't seem to be the same concept. For example, many people worry that a life can't be meaningful unless there's a god, but I don't think anyone has claimed that no one can be *harmed* unless there is a god.)

4:33 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Two quick replies to comments, although there is obviously much more to think about here.

Greg: you right that God has seemed necessary for for ethics (and in particular, for morality) to many people – and not just "confused teenagers". I didn't mean to reject that view out of hand. My confidence that there can be ethics without God is not based on the decisiveness of Euthyphro considerations against the divine command theory and its cousins (as in Norman's book), but on the weakness of arguments for that account, and on the availability of plausible alternatives.

That is why I said that God seems unnecessary for ethics – but not, perhaps, for the meaning of life.

Part of what I had in mind, also, was the sort of consideration Kris points out: life can be good and worthwhile even if it has no meaning (whatever "having meaning" amounts to). The desire for meaning is a desire for something more. But what?

I don't think, however, that the question is best framed by the concept of "a meaningful life", or by asking how this is different from a merely good human life. That way of putting things has been standard in recent (analytic) philosophical discussion, but it seems to me to embody a mistake. I'll try to say why in another post, on Monday.

11:55 AM  

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