Monday, December 9, 2013

Reviewing Randal Rauser’s “The Swedish Atheist” Chapter 27

Chapter 27: God Is Dead and You Have Killed Him, Et Cetera[1]
With only five chapters left to go I am feeling like it’s off to the races. The only problem is, having covered over 80% of the book, I’m not expecting any grand revelations (or perhaps I should say grande revelations).

Sheridan tells Randal that meaning is, essentially, whatever we make it. Randal says, quite skeptically I might add, that that’s an interesting perspective to have. Randal then declares:

“By rejecting God you also reject both goodness and meaning.”

Wait, just wait, he’s getting to it. You picky readers, always demanding your justification and your substantiation. Just hold your horses, I say. Randal isn’t one to disappoint either. He comes up with a lot of excuses to justify not having any real justification in the first place for the things he says.

Take what he says next, for example.

“In an atheist view of the world, there are no absolute ‘shoulds’ or ‘oughts’: no concerns necessarily take priority over any others. Ultimately all people are free to make their own meaning…”

For some reason, I think Richard Mrvyn Hare would disagree. Even an atheist could technically derive ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ from moral considerations. Hare was a renowned moral philosopher who helped expand the area of ethics known as prescriptivism. His analyses of the notion of commendation, and of universalizability in ethics, remain landmarks in how we think about the nature of moral judgments. It’s worth noting that ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ are prescriptive in nature, so it would perhaps do us some good to keep Hare’s form of prescriptivism in mind here.

Although, whether Randal is unaware of Hare or simply dismisses him as Randal holds to an agent-centered morality, I do not know. It may be both.

Randal, not one to pass up dramatic flair however, goes on to add:

“That’s the downside of all your autonomy.”

Really? The downside of atheist autonomy is that we give meaning to the world? That’s a strange thing to view as a “downside” to anything, if you ask me.

Randal isn’t done though. Far from it.

“The crucial question is whether atheism has the resources to provide objective meaning for our lives…”

I would like to stop Randal here and mention that he is making a categorical mistake of confusing atheism for a belief system unto itself. It’s not. Therefore it is simply common sense that it will not be equipped with the resources for providing objective meaning. That goes without saying.

Instead of defining atheism by what it’s not, an irony of ironies, we might look to see what else an atheist may believe apart from their atheism. Are they a humanist? A rationalist perhaps? A free thinker? In other words, atheists may have the resources to provide objective meaning for their lives, contrary to what Randal may believe. Although, atheism not being a belief system, these resources would come from outside of atheism not from within.

Speaking about atheists, Randal explains that

“Since you deny a personal cause to the universe, you’re committed to the view that human beings came from nothing, by nothing and, most importantly, for nothing.”

We came from the universe, did we not? But that doesn’t mean we can’t make much ado about nothing, now, does it?

Really, what Randal is getting at is the Christian idea that in order to have meaning you have to have a sense of purpose. And if there is no purpose, how could there be any real sense of meaning?

This ignores the entire branch of epistemology that I am concerned with, called constructivism. Basically constructivism is the idea that we create knowledge and assign meaning to things as a type of construction. We literally construct our knowledge and meaning from the ground up.

Now without getting into too much detail, it seems that constructivism is extremely well supported, especially in how it relates to modern learning theory. So to even imply that meaning can only exist with a prior purpose to supply it, one would have to account for the counter-intuitive discoveries that we have made in the area of constructivism which seems to show this is not at all the case.

On a different note, why couldn't we find our own purpose and/or meaning in life? 

It seems that our desires could, in point of fact, supply us with purpose enough. If I love gazing up at the stars, why couldn’t my desire to see more beautiful stars give me the purpose of becoming an astronomer. Then as I work toward fulfilling my purpose, based on what makes me happy, I can find meaning in the joy and contentment of stargazing and the success of becoming an astronomer. That would be purpose enough, I should think.

The question is, why wouldn’t this purpose be good enough to supply meaning to my life if that’s the life I desire to have? 

I don’t think Randal has any good objection here, because in my experience, most apologists take it for granted that there ought to be an underlying purpose to life and without this purpose, well, they simply are at a loss for words—probably because they haven’t given it the necessary amount of thought it requires to talk about such matters in depth.

Randal quizzes Sheridan on whether or not we can build a meaning for our lives that is sufficient.

“Is it adequate to say simply that we all ‘write our own stories,’ with the addendum that hopefully not too many of us write stories of cannibalism, rape or serial murder?”

I’d like to think so. The question is, why wouldn’t an individual narrative that supplies meaning be adequate? Adequate to whose standards? Randal’s? Some imaginary God’s? Why is it important to have an objective meaning or purpose? That is not at all clear.

Moving along, Reverend Randal continues to preach.

“We need meaning in our lives—and if there is none, if ultimate reality is indifferent to our existential plight, then we’ll tend to project meaning onto the universe in an attempt to make meaning where none exists.”

That’s precisely what constructivists like myself hold, that we do indeed project meaning in an attempt to make meaning where none exists. 

Again, we have to ask, why is that not satisfactory? Whether we create the meaning ourselves, or it was already there, really doesn’t suggest either way why we should prefer meaning to have been there beforehand. In otherwords,  we must wonder, is it a necessary condition to  pressupose meaning?

Randal claims this is a tragic self-delusion, because either way, “our fate is to be food for worms.”

Actually, he has pulled another sleight of hand. Creating meaning where there isn’t any is not a form of delusion. 

A delusion is an idiosyncrasy in how we perceive the world—often arising when we hold a belief that can be demonstrably contradicted by reality or rational argument (ODE, 2005).

Creating a meaning for ourselves is an idiosyncrasy in the same way preferring chocolate ice-cream over vanilla ice-cream is an idiosyncrasy. In other words, writing our own narrative and supplying it with meaning has nothing to say on whether there is an ultimate meaning apart from our idiosyncrasies. Let me go back to the ice-cream analogy for a moment to better clarify. Just because there are different flavors of ice-cream doesn’t have anything to say on whether or not there is an ultimate flavor of ice-cream, or more precisely, whether there ought to be. And why should there be?

But idiosyncratic meaning, to call it that, is not a delusion. In order to say that, we’d have to assume liking chocolate ice-cream more than any other flavor is a delusion. Or to think of it another way, putting meaning into the world doesn’t contradict the fact that the universe may ultimately prove to be without an objective meaning.

Realizing this, we can safely say that we create meaning where there isn’t any, and that’s not a contradiction any more than creating a fire to stay warm when it is cold is a contradiction.

Consider that coldness is merely an absence of heat. The heat of the flame doesn’t contradict the cold, it is merely a different degree on the same scale because both hot and cold are simply measures of temperature.

I would argue the same is true with meaning. We supply meaning, thereby altering the meaningless universe by making it into a meaningful one—just as the heat of the flame alters the coldness to make warmth. Meaning and no meaning thus can be viewed as measures of purpose in the same way hot and cold are measures of temperature.

At least, that’s my take on it. But Randal obviously hasn’t given it much thought, as he has seemingly already reached the conclusion he likes best—the “Because God” conclusion which apologists like to use for every single argument they have. It strikes me as somewhat an overly lackadaisical bout of thinking. If you don’t understand how it could be otherwise, simply invoke God.

That sort of thing may be good enough for the religious apologist, but it shouldn’t be good enough for us (namely anyone who cares about these issues and wants to give them their best consideration).

Randal moves onto to discuss one of my all time favorite philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche. Quoting from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science (1882), Randal fixates on the passage that end with Nietzsche pondering:

“Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing?”

Addressing Sheridan, Randal states:

“That’s the reality of a godless universe as Nietzsche sees it… There is no meaning or purpose in the world to guide our lives or restrict which stories are good ones since there is no ‘good’ to judge our stories beyond our own particular preferences… Without God, everything changes: morality, meaning, everything.”

Well, in actuality that’s more of Randal projecting his understanding onto Nietzsche rather than doing a proper deconstruction of what Nietzsche might have meant, which is what many apologists do who have only given Nietzsche a cursory read and haven’t understood him well enough.

According to professor of philosophy Robert Wicks of the University of Auckland, regarding the issue of Nietzsche’s proclamation that God is dead, he informs:

“Nietzsche’s atheism — his account of “God's murder” (section 125) — is a reaction to the conception of a single, ultimate, judgmental authority who is privy to everyone’s hidden and personally embarrassing secrets. His atheism also aims to redirect people’s attention to their inherent freedom, the presently-existing world, and away from escapist, pain-relieving, heavenly otherworlds.”[2]

Contrary to what Randal affirms, Nietzsche wasn’t saying that things change without God. What Nietzsche was saying is that things change because of God. And since Nietzsche didn’t think God existed, he contended that the purpose and meaning of the theist could only be a type of delusion.

Many apologists will claim Nietzsche was arguing for a kind of nihilism. But this is the opposite of what he was doing. In his work On the Genealogy of Morals, A Polemic (1887) Nietzsche maintains that the traditional ideals set forth as holy and morally good within Christian morality are products of self-deception. He further expounds on his critique in Beyond Good and Evil.[3]

In Untimely Meditations (1876) Nietzsche informs:

“We are responsible to ourselves for our own existence; consequently we want to be the true helmsman of this existence and refuse to allow our existence to resemble a mindless act of chance.”[4]

Coming back to The Gay Science, Nietzsche informs us that

“Whatever has value in our world now does not have value in itself, according to its nature — nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time, as a present — and it was we who gave and bestowed it.”[5]

Perhaps Randal should have read his Nietzsche more carefully. Of course, this misconstrual of Nietzsche is also stereotypical of the religious apologist. If you don’t understand Nietzsche, just invoke God!

Randal closes the chapter by reiterating:

“[M]y argument is that atheism can’t provide the metaphysical ground for the objective meaning that we recognize does in fact exist and that imbues our lives with significance and direction.”

As for Randal’s so-called argument, he really hasn’t made one. All he has done, technically speaking, is make the unsupported claim that virtue and meaning cannot exist apart from God, and then he gave a couple of really bad analogies that didn’t get him anywhere. He then concludes that atheism cannot provide meaning. 

Franlky, this has to be one of the worst arguments I’ve ever heard. But it just goes to show you, if it’s too difficult to formulate a real argument, the religious apologist will just claim the other side fails to answer any of their objections while claiming their position answers all of them, then without giving any explanation as to how their side answers these objections they preemptively declare victory.

In chapter 28, “What Does God Taste Like?” Randal declares:

“It’s more important to know whether we’re in relationship with God than to know that we believe the right things about God.”

As you probably have guessed, in the next chapter we’re going to learn about how to have a relationship with God! Oh, goody.

[1] The pedantic in me has to wonder why Randal used the British spelling of etcetera here. It’s no big deal, but seems slightly out of place, especially considering how much colloquial American dialog he is using in this book.

[2] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, retrieved December 8, 2013. Available online at:

[4] R. Hollingdale, trans. (1983), p. 128.

[5] From The Gay Science, sec. 302.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist