Monday, November 28, 2005

Truth in Ethics

More "popular philosophy": this time philosophy of language, with applications to ethics.

In True to Life, Michael Lynch sets out to defend "four truisms about truth": truth is objective, a "cognitive good", a worthy goal of inquiry, and something valuable in itself. On the back cover, Nussbaum says that the book "performs a major public service".

The argument of the book is intricate, though it is presented with an enviably light touch. It begins with the platitude that a belief is correct if and only if its object is a true proposition; deduces that, if p is true, it is good to believe p, other things being equal; interprets this as final or non-instrumental value; and concludes that truth is itself a normative property, and, given Moore's "open question argument", an irreducible one: "If truth matters, reductive naturalism is false."

In a different context, it would be interesting to engage with these steps, each of which is controversial. Here, my focus is rhetorical. Who is Lynch writing for, and what are his chances of convincing them?

I think he cannot be writing for the post-modernist "enemies of truth" alleged to inhabit our English Departments. They will rightly feel that they are not taken seriously here. There is no mention of Derrida, and only a page or two on Foucault. In any case, the whole operation will seem to them naïvely unhistorical. To engage with them, one has to sink, or rise, to their level – as in Literature Against Itself.

Perhaps the aim of the book is prophylactic: it is meant to forestall the attractions of subjectivism and the cynical equation of truth with power. But if this is his persuasive task, Lynch has adopted an unfortunate strategy. Arguing that one cannot accept the value of truth without Moorean non-naturalism is bad salesmanship, even if is sound. It is not just the post-modern crowd who cannot stomach Principia Ethica: most philosophers find its commitments incredible.

The effect of True to Life, if it carries conviction, will thus be to enmire the truisms about truth in a swamp of metaphysics, to retrench the suspicion that those who believe in the possibility and the value of objective truth inhabit a Platonic jungle. As I said, that might be so – I haven't tried to engage with Lynch's arguments – but it would be terrible news. This truth might be one of those we do better not to believe.

Monday, November 21, 2005

What does it all mean? (III)

It may seem that we are getting nowhere fast. My excuse is that the question is not easy. But I am ready to attempt an answer, for what it's worth. What follows is less philosophy than autobiography. It is tentative and provisional in the highest degree.

Life may come to seem meaningless in many different ways. What do they have in common? I think it is this: they are all ways of bringing out the contingency of life. What is really upsetting about Darwin is not mechanism, but the opposite: the sense that our very existence is happenstance, the product of random forces that might easily have gone another way. Fear of death is about the precariousness of one's existence.

The stories that might give meaning to life are stories of necessity. The idea of God's design, of teleology, is a story in which we have to exist, we are needed by God, we are essential. Nietzsche's myth of the eternal recurrence answers to part of the same urge: this life will happen again and again because it must.

In discussing the problem of evil, John Cottingham describes the theodicy according to which imperfection is inevitable because, in creating the world, God had to subtract from himself. He connects this with the inevitability of death:
Any creatures inhabiting a material planet, and themselves made of matter, formed of 'the dust of the earth', will necessarily be mortal […] we cannot coherently wish […] that God had created a material world not subject to change, decay and suffering […] the very possibility of existence […] depends on mortality […]
If this were true, if it were really a metaphysical necessity (not just a natural law) that we are mortal, I think – though it is hard to be sure – I would no longer be afraid to die. It would be incoherent, in a way, to rail against death from love of life, if life were strictly impossible without death. (I say it is hard to be sure because the claim of metaphysical necessity seems to me obviously false, and barely intelligible. Mortality is a physical necessity; it is not part of the essence of things, and I am not sure how it could have been.)

At any rate, the interpretation of the demand for meaning as a demand for necessity explains why it is satisfied for all of us, or none. It accounts for the relevance of God. And it makes sense of the importance of size. Contemplating the vastness of the cosmos is another way to bring out the contingency of our existing at all.

None of this explains why necessity should matter to us, or how contingency would justify the fear of death. But what did you expect? Surely it's enough that I have answered the question of life's meaning, even if I have not explained what the question is. The answer is sung by the strings in the final movement of Beethoven's last quartet. The meaning of life is the reason why whatever is, must be.

Monday, November 14, 2005

What does it all mean? (II)

Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply sensation, and death is the privation of all sensation. [...] Foolish, therefore, is the man who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatsoever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation.
Thus Epicurus in his Letter to Menoeceus. His arguments – there are others, too – prompt a standard reply: even if (what seems doubtful) pleasure and pain are the only things that matter in life, death may still come as a harm to us in depriving us of the pleasure we would otherwise have had.

Suppose that is right. Would it be enough to justify our attitude to death? If death is not bad for us, there is no reason to fear it. But the converse is less clear: not everything bad is worthy of fear. Fear has to do with the uncertain. It is just as irrational to be afraid of an inevitable harm as it is of something harmless. The proper emotion is dread, or resentment, or grim resignation. In any case, the violence of my terrified reaction to the prospect of death is completely out of proportion to the deprivation that orthodox philosophers describe. If I am not irrational in this, the answer to Epicurus must have left something out. But what?

Here is my conjecture, which takes us back to our original topic: if you know the meaning of life, you will not be afraid to die. If life has meaning, it must be something to reconcile us to extinction – even if it does so by denying that the death of the body is the death of the soul. That is why I was not satisfied, last time, by the teleological interpretation of the meaning of life, at least when it is unadorned. Even if I believed in it, I would still be frozen with anxiety at the thought of death. What justifies this fear (as it seems to me) is the thought that life is meaningless.

Wittgenstein made it fashionable to defend non-cognitivism about religious conviction: what we call "belief" here is a certain attitude, not the representation of a fact. Hence his impatience with The Golden Bough:
Frazer's account of the magical and religious views of mankind is unsatisfactory: it makes these views look like errors. Was Augustine in error, then, when he called upon God on every page of the Confessions?
In his book, On the Meaning of Life, John Cottingham flirts with a version of this:
[Faith] is hard to describe in purely cognitive terms; for it is not primarily characterisable in terms of propositions assented to, but is a matter of a certain orientation in which emotions and beliefs and practices of worship and moral convictions merge together in what Wittgenstein called a 'passionate commitment' to a certain form of life.
This approach to the spiritual can be tempting, but if I am right about death and the meaning of life, then it must be wrong. To grasp the meaning of life – which religion is meant to provide – it is not sufficient to undergo a non-cognitive change through which one ceases to fear death. (Therapy or yoga might do that.) Instead one has to know something that makes it wrong to be afraid. This knowledge may depend on emotional transformation; but it must be knowledge all the same.
To know an answer to the question 'What is the meaning of human life?' means to be religious.

So Einstein claimed. And while his statement must be qualified, at least this much is true: knowledge of God is sufficient for knowledge of meaning (if there is any such thing). Since knowledge of meaning is cognitive, so is knowledge of God.

Monday, November 07, 2005

What does it all mean? (I)

In the opening chapter of his book, On the Meaning of Life, John Cottingham asks: "Can a radically immoral life really be meaningful?" He proposes some conditions that might rule this out: "the meaningful life for human beings is an integrated life", whereas the life of the torturer, say, is likely to be fragmented. What is more, "in order to be meaningful, life must meet the standards of some pattern tailored to our human nature, rather than being a pure function of isolated individual choice."

Forget, for a moment, whether these claims are true. What do they have to do with the meaning of life? It is a famously opaque question, but as I understand it, when we ask whether life has meaning, we are not interested in the meaningfulness of individual lives, but in human life in general. Scepticism about the meaning of life is not piecemeal: "Ned's life isn't meaningful, nor is Kate's, nor is mine. I wonder whether anyone has a meaningful life?" If human life has meaning, all human life has meaning; if not, none. Consequently, much of Cottingham's discussion strikes me as mis-directed. (I have the same complaint about other recent work on the topic.)

To repeat: the demand for meaning is obscure. How to get a grip on it? One strategy is to look at the ways in which it might be satisfied – or not.

So, what could give meaning to life? The overwhelmingly instinctive response is: God. Thus, I think it is a constraint on any adequate account of the question of life's meaning to explain why this would seem to do the job.

In much the same way, we need to make sense of the argument that life is meaningless because we are tiny specks in an endless cosmos – even if we reject that argument in the end. Much as I adore it, I cannot be satisfied with Ramsey's charming riposte:
Where I seem to differ from some of my friends is in attaching little importance to physical size. I don't feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens. The stars may be large, but they cannot think or love; and these are qualities which impress me far more than size does. I take no credit for weighing nearly seventeen stone.
A tempting proposal is that life has meaning just in case human lives play a role in a larger functional whole. After all, the question of life's meaning is often framed as a question about the point of life, about whether it has a purpose. This would account for the relevance of God, but also for the view that life has meaning only because it is social, and the attempt to give meaning to life by putting us "in harmony with nature".

There must something in this "functional interpretation", but it does not take us very far. For one thing, it won't explain why the magnitude of the universe seems like an argument against the meaning of life. On the functional view, appeal to size is no more than a stand-in for mechanism or the rejection of purpose, as in the planetarium scene of Rebel Without a Cause. But the problem of mechanism is about freedom and agency, not about meaning: it is not the problem I have in mind.

In any case, the functional interpretation makes it hard to see why we should want life to have meaning. What is the appeal of being cogs in a divine machine? As well as explaining why God seems relevant, and why size really matters, an interpretation of our question must explain why anyone should care about the meaning of life.