bookmark_borderDoes anything really matter?

Does anything really matter?
Some people say no. Such people are proponents of nihilism, the view according to which nothing matters. According to nihilists, there is no reason to care about anything whatsoever. Nihilists do not deny that people care about things, they claim only that there is no reason to care about anything.
Other people say yes. Among the people who say yes, some claim that the only things that matter are the things that we care about and, by caring about them, we make them matter. These people are subjectivists. On the subjectivist view, something’s mattering is always a matter of it mattering to some person or other, or to some group of people or other. Something might matter to me (or to my group), but if you don’t care about it, then it doesn’t matter to you. Something can matter to me or to you (or to us or to them), but it doesn’t make sense to say that something can just matter, full stop.
Such a view is not a view according to which anything matters. Those who say that nothing can matter unless we care about it would express their view more clearly if they said that nothing really matters.
Other people who say yes reject this kind of subjectivism. Of these opponents to subjectivism, there are some who say that things matter only because God exists. If there was no God, these people insist, then nothing would matter. Such people hold,

(G) God’s existence guarantees that things matter. If God did not exist, then nothing would matter.

What would make (G) true? (G) might be true because something only matters because God cares about it. If so, then those who accept (G), despite their opposition to subjectivism, actually accept a version of it. According to subjectivists, something matters only when it matters to someone (or group) or other. Those who accept (G) think that something matters only when it matters to God. Their view is a version of what we might call individual subjectivism. On such a view something matters only when it matters to a particular individual. Those who hold (G) think that the only individual who can make things matter is God.
In order to find out whether such people are right, we should think about some of the things that matter and ask whether God has anything to do with their mattering.
Consider, for example, the agony of a small child who is suffering from hunger and malnutrition. Such agony matters. And it matters whether there are people who try to alleviate this suffering. And it matters whether they are successful.
Suppose now that God does not exist. Would this child’s agony matter any less? Suppose caring individuals successfully treat this child’s malnutrition and nurse her back to health. Would the fact that God does not exist make this successful intervention fail to matter? It is difficult to see how.
Theists who defend the view according to which nothing matters if God does not exist would express their view more clearly if they claimed that nothing really matters. If things matter only because God exists, then nothing really matters.
Let’s return to the more general subjectivist claim that something’s mattering is always a matter of it mattering to some person(s) or other. On this general subjectivist view, things matter to me only if I care about them.
This view is implausible. To see why, consider that I can ask, “Why does what I care about matter? Why should I care about that stuff? I know that I do care about it, the question is why I should.”
A subjectivist would say that the person who asks such questions has misunderstood what it means for things to matter. On this kind of subjectivism, something matters to a person precisely when that person cares about it. But suppose that someone now asks, “But do the things that I care about actually matter?” How should a subjectivist respond?
He could say, “Well, they matter to you” and hope that this ends the conversation. But this will not satisfy, as is revealed by the following reasonable reply: “Yes, I understand that they matter to me, but I want to know if they should matter to me? Telling me that they do matter to me does not answer my question.”
‘Should the things that matter to me actually matter to me?’ Might seem like a strange or even nonsensical question, but it is neither. The person who asks it is saying this: 
Yes, I understand that these things matter to me. But maybe I am wrong about them, maybe they don’t really matter and I should not care about them. I want to know if they really matter.
When we say such things and ask such questions, we are asking for reasons to care about the things we care about. We want to know whether the things we care about are worth caring about. To say that something matters is to say that there are features of the thing that give us reasons to care about it. So, to say that suffering matters is to say that suffering has features in virtue of which we ought to care about whether it occurs. What the person who asks the question above wants to know is whether there is anything that gives him reasons to care about it.
I think that the answer to this question is yes. For example, we ought to care about whether and how much suffering occurs; indeed, we ought to want that as little suffering occurs as is possible. The nature of suffering gives us reasons to want it to not occur and to do what we can to avoid it, to the extent that this is possible.
When the subjectivist says that only the things that we care about matter and that, by caring about them, we make them matter, he is saying that nothing has any intrinsic features in virtue of which we ought to care about it. It follows that agony has no intrinsic features in virtue of which we ought to care whether it occurs. It follows from this that there is nothing about the fact that if a nuclear weapon were exploded over Seoul, millions of people would experience severe agony that gives us a reason to care whether this event occurs. This is why I said that subjectivists would express their view better if they claimed that nothing really matters.
When a theist claims that if God does not exist, then nothing matters, she is saying that nothing has any intrinsic features in virtue of which we ought to care about it. It follows that agony has no intrinsic features in virtue of which we ought to care whether it occurs. It follows from this that there is nothing about the fact that if a famine struck a large swath of Africa, hundreds of thousands of people would suffer and die from malnutrition that gives a reason to care about whether such an event occurs. This is why I said that such theists would express their view better if they claimed that nothing really matters.

bookmark_borderChristian Pastor Writes in HuffPo, “There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist”

Pastor Rick Henderson wrote en editorial in yesterday’s Huffington Post provocatively titled, “Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist.” While he does correctly state, “it is true that there is no definitive atheistic worldview,” there is very little else in this article which he gets right.
Here’s Pastor Henderson:

While it is true that there is no definitive atheistic worldview, all atheists share the same fundamental beliefs as core to their personal worldviews. While some want to state that atheism is simply a disbelief in the existence of a god, there really is more to it. Every expression of atheism necessitates at least three additional affirmations:
1. The universe is purely material. It is strictly natural, and there is no such thing as the supernatural (e.g., gods or spiritual forces).
2. The universe is scientific. It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics.
3. The universe is impersonal. It does not a have consciousness or a will, nor is it guided by a consciousness or a will.

His first point is confused. Probably even most Christians believe the universe is purely material. Presumably what he has in mind instead is this statement: “Reality is purely material.” If that is what he means, however, he’s wrong. The belief that all of reality is purely material is called materialism. 
Atheism is not materialism. (I, for one, am an atheist but not a materialist.) In fact, atheism isn’t even about materialism. Atheism is simply about the (non)-existence of God/god(s). There are many atheists who are open to the existence of immaterial, impersonal entities (so-called “abstract objects“).
So Henderson could not be more mistaken when he writes, “Denial of any one of those three affirmations will strike a mortal blow to atheism.” A denial of materialism does not strike a mortal blow to atheism.
But let’s keep going and see where he goes from here.

Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless.  A tree falls. A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery. A dog barks. A man is killed for not espousing the national religion. These are all actions that can be known and explained but never given any meaning or value.”

Even the sort of materialism Henderson has in mind doesn’t lead to the conclusion, “the universe is meaningless.” In the context of his article, there are two kinds of meaning: objective/cosmic/meaning-with-a-capital-“M” and subjective/personal/meaning-with-a lower-case-“m.” Materialism does seem to rule out the first kind of meaning; it does not rule out the second. The second kind of meaning is all we need in order for life, the universe, etc. to be meaningful.

A good atheist — that is, a consistent atheist — recognizes this dilemma. His only reasonable conclusion is to reject objective meaning and morality. Thus, calling him “good” in the moral sense is nonsensical. There is no morally good atheist, because there really is no objective morality. At best, morality is the mass delusion shared by humanity, protecting us from the cold sting of despair.

Like many moral apologists, Henderson is confused about the distinction between entailment and consistency. Consider the question, “Which fast food restaurant is the best?” Suppose there are only two possible answers: McDonald’s and Burger King. Suppose I am a McDonalds-ist, i.e., someone who believes McDonald’s fast food is the best.
Now suppose someone asks me, “Which team will win next year’s Super Bowl?” There are thirty-two teams in the National Football League (NFL) and so thirty-two possible answers. McDonalds-ism is consistent with all thirty-two possible answers:

  • McDonaldis-ism could be true and Seahawks-ism could be true (i.e., the Seattle Seahawks could win);
  • McDonalds-ism could be true and Colts-ism could be true (i.e., the Indianapolis Colts could win); and
  • so forth.

My belief in McDonalds-ism tells us precisely nothing about what I must believe about the next Super Bowl if I want to be consistent. Thus, McDonalds-ism does not entail any answer to the question about the next Super Bowl winner.
Along the same lines, atheism tells us nothing about whether objective morality is true.  Atheism is neither moral nor immoral; rather, it is amoral. By itself, atheism does not make it obligatory, permitted, or forbidden to do anything. It is neither an ethical theory (like utilitarianism) nor a meta-ethical theory (like moral objectivism or moral realism). Atheism entails only one or two conclusions about ethics or meta-ethics:
(1) any theological ethical or meta-ethical theory (such as Divine Command Theory) is false; and
(2) depending on how atheism is defined, then atheism may also entail that noncognitivism is false.
If atheism is defined positively as the belief that God does not exist, then atheism presupposes that the sentence “God does not exist” expresses a proposition and so can be true or false. If, however, that sentence expresses a proposition, that in turn entails that the sentence “God is perfectly morally good” expresses a proposition. But if the latter expresses a proposition, then ethical noncognitivism is false. (See here.)
Let’s move on. Henderson writes:

For those of you who think you’re about to light up this supposed straw man and raze me to the ground, consider the following:

I do think Henderson is tearing down a straw man. His mistake, typical of many moral apologists for theism, is that he uncritically latches onto quotations from atheist nonphilosophers (specifically, biologists) who support his position, while revealing no evidence he is even familiar with the work of atheist philosophers who reject his position.

“Modern science directly implies that there … is no ultimate meaning for humans.”
–William Provine

We’ve commented on biologist William Provine’s claims about morality before. (See here.) I’ll summarize the most important here: It’s far from obvious why Provine thinks that “Modern science directly implies that there … is no ultimate meaning for humans.” At first glance, this seems very implausible because meaning lies within the domain of philosophy, not science. One can’t help but wonder if Provine presupposes scientism and that his statement about the purported conclusions of “modern science” are really just a statement about the implications of scientism. That really doesn’t matter one way or the other, however. All that matters is whether Provine has given a good reason to think that modern science leads to the conclusion that there is no ultimate meaning, which he hasn’t. Provine has provided nothing more than a mere assertion of bias for the non-existence of ultimate meaning for humans.

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. … DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”
–Richard Dawkins

What properties does Dawkins have in mind when he claims that the universe has the properties “we should expect” if there is no objective meaning or morality? And why would those properties be expected? Again, we have a biologist making sweeping claims about philosophy (specifically, metaethics) and, again, we are given no argument for those claims.
Finally, Henderson quotes E.O. Wilson:

“No species, ours included, possesses a purpose beyond the imperatives created by its genetic history.”
–Edward O. Wilson

Like Provine and Dawkins above, this summary sentence by Wilson offers no argument for thinking that its claim is true.
Moving on, Henderson then considers (and rejects) two ways in which atheism and objective morality might be reconciled:
(1) Morality is the result of socio-biological evolution. (I’ve commented on this before. See, for example, here.)
(2) Morality is logical, by which Henderson means that atheists can behave morally. I agree with Henderson that atheists who make this objection have completely missed the point.
What we don’t find in Henderson’s piece is even a hint that he’s aware of serious defenses of objective morality without God by philosophers who specialize in meta-ethics, such as Erik Wielenberg, Quentin Smith, or G.E. Moore (to name just a few).
In short, while Henderson has repeated all of the main talking points for a theist trying to score cheap debate points in a debate about morality without God, he hasn’t even come close to giving a logically correct argument for the claim that “There is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist.”
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bookmark_borderQuentin Smith on Bertrand Russell on “Unyielding Despair” and the Meaning of Life

Photo of Bertrand RussellIn his essay, “A Free Man’s Worship,” Bertrand Russell writes:

Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. 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—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy that rejects them can hope to stand…
How in such an alien and inhuman world, so powerless a creature as man preserve his aspirations untarnished? A strange mystery it is that nature, omnipotent but blind, in the revolutions of her secular hurryings through the abysses of space, has brought forth at last a child, subject still to her power, but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking mother.[1]

How should this passage be interpreted? Many writers, including and especially theistic proponents of a moral argument for God’s existence, interpret this passage as evidence that Russell believed the nonexistence of God goes hand-in-hand with the meaninglessness of life. In his history of twentieth century metaethics, Ethical and Religious Thought in Analytic Philosophy of Language, a book which most theists who write on moral arguments have ignored, Quentin Smith argues that that is a misinterpretation of Russell.
Before I can summarize why Smith thinks this, I first need to summarize how Smith defines his terms.

“Human life has an objective ethical meaning” =df. moral realism is true, that is, if and only if moral facts obtain independently of whether humans believe they obtain.[2]
“Human life has an objective religious meaning” = df. theism is true.[3] (p. vii)

With these definitions in mind, Smith argues that Russell’s essay is an expression of ethical meaning and religious meaninglessness:

There is no God but “the God created by our own love of the good” (57), and thus the locus of objective meaning in our lives must reside in “that energy of faith which enables us to live constantly in the vision of the good” (58). Thus, Russell suggests that the desire for an objective religious meaning is unsatisfied and that in this respect human lives must be devoid of fulfillment. But there are moral ideals of which we have knowledge, and whatever fulfillment, regarding objective meaning, we are capable of achieving must involve the valuation of these ideals.[4]

Furthermore, as Smith observes, “Russell offered little by way of argument for these claims about objective meaning and meaninglessness.”[5] But let’s assume that Russell is correct. What, then, would be the implications of his view? Once again, let’s turn to Smith.

If Russell’s and Moore’s position is correct, namely, that human life is religiously meaningless but ethically meaningful, then only part of the human desire for objective meaning can be fulfilled. We should side with Russell rather than Moore and hold that the emotional fulfillment of an ethically meaningful way of life should be built on “the firm foundation of unyielding despair” about religious meaning. But this also is not quite accurate, because the desire or need for religious meaning is not universal; if somebody has no desire for religious meaning, then God’s nonexistence will not produce despair in him. Accordingly, we should say that for any person who has a desire for a religious and an ethical meaning of life, the happiness he attains through his ethically meaningful life should coexist with his despair at the lack of a religious meaning. This appeared to be Russell’s attitude at the time he wrote “A Free Man’s Worship.”[6]

[1] Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” 1903.
[2] Quentin Smith, Ethical and Religious Thought in Analytic Philosophy of Language (Yale University Press, 1997), p. vii.
[3] Smith 1997, p. vii.
[4] Smith 1997, p. 6.
[5] Smith 1997, 6. For a defense of these claims, Smith says that one must turn instead to the writings of G.E. Moore, which is beyond the scope of this essay.
[6] Smith 1997, 7.