Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Afternoon Philosophy: On the Failure of Atheistic Materialism

Have you ever been run over in conversation by some smooth talking atheist or materialist type? They have all these ideas about how the world would be so much better if we just got rid of morality and how science is the only thing there is? Sometimes their arguments sound pretty good and you can't quite put a finger on what's wrong with them. Don't worry. You intuition is probably right.

I was talking with a young man at the parish this afternoon and he was relating to me the discussion he had in class today with an atheist. The guy I was talking to, let's call him Anthony, was arguing in favor of morality. The atheist was arguing against him on the grounds that it is not the purpose of the government to legislate morality. His stance included the contentions that there are there is no morality and no dignity of human life.

Now, I wasn't there and was getting the conversation second hand from a person with a biased interest. Given that, I'm not looking to give an exhaustive argument that takes sides and picks a winner between Anthony and the atheist. My purpose here is to just give some general thoughts that this conversation made me think of.

Proposition: The government is not in the business of morality.

Response: What exactly, then, is the purpose of all those laws? I would like to suggest that every law is a proclamation on morality. What atheists usually mean when they argue this way is that "I don't think the government should make laws about things that those religious people care about." which is much different than the government not dealing in morality. Let's look at what would happen if the government stayed out of morality...

Traffic Laws - For the purpose of safety. Why? Because safety is good. Why? Because injuries/deaths are bad. Guess what, that's a moral judgement. Injuries/deaths are bad. So, no traffic laws.

Environmental Laws - For preserving the environment. Why? Because it's good. We need it to be good to stay alive. We like staying alive. Living is good and pollution is bad. Oops...another moral judgement...better get rid of environmental laws too,

Theft, murder etc... - Stealing and killing are illegal because killing and stealing are bad. Dang, looks like we found another one. We'd better get rid of those laws too... We wouldn't want the government meddling in morality...

The point obviously is that the "government should stay out of morality" argument is ridiculous because adhering to it would totally destroy society.

Bonus: Those people that argue against morality probably still would be pretty upset if you just randomly punched them in the face in the middle of the conversation, probably insisting that it was wrong of you to do so. (morality! there it is again!)

For centuries philosophers have tried to work around this. They fill volumes that usually make no sense to anyone and either come to no conclusions at all or to ones that have really weird and scary consequences. That should tell us something. (Hint: If if's so hard and complicated to work around morality maybe it actually exists, maybe it really is a part of our human nature.)

Proposition: Materialism. What you see is what you get. We're just the same as robots.

Response: You'd better put down that poetry and stop looking at that art. In fact, stop talking...and no thinking either. And really, living too. What's the point? (Immediate disclaimer: I am not in any way at all condoning suicide or mocking those that have made that unfortunate choice. Human life is precious but I can't help but think that rigid materialism leads to this very unfortunate conclusion.)

If there is nothing beyond the physical, what we can measure and observe, if there's nothing meta-physical, our life is a sad one. Actually, it ceases to be life.

Words and art are symbols that we exchange to convey meanings and ideas. But you can't actually hold and idea. You can't have a bucket of beauty. You can have things that are beautiful but not beauty itself. That is metaphysical. It exists but not physically. Any other idea or concept is like that too.

Let's look at Life. You can point to things that are alive or if something is dead we have no problem saying that it used to be alive but we can't get just life by itself. You can't have just a bucket of life. Life clearly exists but it is not a tangible thing. You've got to have meta-physics to have life.

Let's look back at society, at government: Upon what is it established? From where does it's authority come? (oh, and authority is one of those non-tangibles too.) What gives the government the right and obligation to make laws and regulate society? Because we the people give it to them? Yes, but why do we do that? Because it's for our own good (hopefully). So, we have government for our own good. Ah, but what then is this "goodness"? That sure sounds like a metaphysical concept to me! Okay, so we have to strike the concepts of good and bad. Nothing is either good or bad. It only just is. Whatever and however is fine.

Oh, and no free will either, since we're mechanistically determined. I had better quit talking about what I want to do. Everything I do I am unavoidably constrained to.

This is turning out to be really depressing...

Bonus: Note that none of the above makes any appeal to religion. Atheism gets subsumed by materialism. If you're a materialist your have to be an atheist by default, logically at least.

If we're going to bring religion up, well, that's depressing too. If there is no life after this and we just cease to exist when our physical bodies die, what's the point? Most people just ignore this question and pretend that they're happy just ceasing to be. I don't buy it! I think that question nags at every atheist/materialist even if they refuse to admit it (even to themselves).

Do I mean this to be an exhaustive and philosophically air-tight argument? No. I just wanted to throw a stick in the gears of the secular confidence. So many "enlightened" ideas lead to, honestly, some pretty depressing and scary conclusions. Fiercely atheistic governments don't exactly have great track records for the well-being of their people. Those secular Utopias never seem to quite work out, do they?

*-I'm not proposing that Anthony reply to his friend this way. Witty comments and rebuttals don't change hearts and minds. Only love does that.