I was replying to this last night, and then decided I was bound to go on for hours. Which I will in just a moment, but first, my reply:
Wow, very late to the party, but I’m glad you mentioned this, as I’m also a frequent Edge reader, and part of the fun for me is getting mad at World Question answers I think are unreasonably dopey. I’m cooking up a post on it, in fact.
And I’m also pleased because I noticed this particular atheism problem just as you did, except I think for me it means something a little bit different, i.e. a way to spit in the eye of Dawkins and Dennett and all other laypeople who pretend to expertise in this kind of argument just because they also happen to be biologists or somesuch. But since when did having a degree in one field entitle you to claim another in a different discipline, free of charge? Like the person who replied above, they seem to think that simply stuffing unbelief down the world’s throat would be a good idea…but I don’t think they’re right about that.
Here’s what that atheism problem gave me: that while I would certainly think myself foolish to hold the opinion that there is an afterlife, I must concede that I believe in one, because I can’t conceptualize a world without a “me”. Ipso facto, I don’t believe I vanish from myself after death! Although I may, indeed, be of the opinion that I do.
And that’s an inconsistency, but it might after all be a good kind of inconsistency to have, because although I don’t think existentialism is corrosive of moral behaviour (rather the opposite), I do think that it’s a struggle to fend off nihilism long enough to arrive at it, if you think when you die you’re dead. If I vanish even from myself when I die, then to “me” it will be the same thing as never having lived at all, because “I” will be absolutely extinguished. In fact it’ll be the same as no one ever having lived, to “me”; I won’t care that I’m remembered well, or if justice is done, or if my loved ones are taken care of, because the instant I die all that vanity and idealism and love will be entirely and utterly swept away, just as if it never existed at all…which in a way it didn’t, because everyone is fated to die, and be unmade, and they won’t remember, either, so why worry about them? As soon as they die, well then they’ll have no complaints, will they? Thus, the paradise of the now means nothing if not remembered by some self, somehow, just as the hell of the now must be completely drained of force, of even the idea of force, for the same reason. Because if the dead don’t exist, neither do the living.
Call that a psychology of religion, if you like: even in those somewhat lacking in empathy, one imagines that it’s a constraining (if invisible) world-view. This matters, to somebody, somewhere, somehow, in a non-transient and non-trivial way. Well, and that is some underlying philosophy at work right there, supporting the idea that taking, giving, killing, saving, all are consequential acts…and at least because of that I think it’s maddeningly naïve of the would-be “brights” to think that the elimination of religion is a) simply accomplished, if only people are willing to listen to reason, and b) a good idea in the first place. This is the same sort of thinking that says “look, the Bible contains contradictions, also some legal prescriptions odious to the modern mind – gracious, that means it’s good for absolutely nothing!” Nonsense. It’s good for thinking about, at least, and who cares who believes it anyway? Seriously, who gives a damn about that? What does it matter? Just as the atheist secretly clings to the ineradicability of his selfhood, proponents of “bright” seem to cling to a value of legacy and progress (not to mention understanding) that their own position makes absurd…so to folks of that stripe who comment on Edge, I’ve often wanted to say: by all means, do away with God and the afterlife, but please make sure that the personal and social codes you’re left with after their demise are your own, and not leftovers from the religious past that you’ve decided to falsely privilege by calling “normative”…and please do make sure to try to account for what conclusions others may come to, once you’ve uninstalled the psychology of religion program that keeps them from always smacking their noses against the hard windowpane of “the depressing hypothesis”…
Yawn…kinda pompous, wasn’t it? Oh well…thanks, John! That was fun for me, at least. I do like Edge, and I do like to recommend it to people, but I also tell them to beware the rather rich self-congratulation of the “digerati” that it sometimes trips into for pages upon pages…the latest World Question has been very disappointing in this respect, as tough to slog through as a swamp full of chocolate cake, and as a result I’ve given up on it: Freeman Dyson’s ideas about what’s going on in science are worth reading, as are Douglas Rushkoff’s about what’s going on in culture, but if I have to read one more engineer’s utopian fantasy about how the intersection of Milton Friedman, Robert Heinlein, Paul Churchland, and Nicholas Negroponte will bring the Millenium, I think I may have to start smashing some machinery. There are a great many people who have a great many interesting things to say on Edge – Wired magazine’s own publisher (or was it EIC, or both?) not excepted – but there are also a great many who don’t seem able to say it unless they’re pointed in the right direction first. Some of the sources of their future-optimism even fill me with dread, like this one guy’s idea that individual carbon-trading vouchers, set loose to do what they will in a free market, will necessarily cause the invisible hand to produce universal equality…
I mean: amazing, that an educated person could think that. For God’s sake, unnamed multi-degreed ingenue, this is the world, not the damned Internet! And you’ve just proposed selling 90% of it into eternal slavery; now only make it 100% and you really will have universal equality. Jeez. I love Edge, and it rarely makes me think of how desperately our society needs to give its university graduates a good grounding in Philosophy of Science…or any Philosophy…or any History, or Literature…or, you know, just some plain old general Arts, that would be helpful too…but this last one doesn’t just need Kuhn or Feyerabend to provide a little balance, it needs bloody Chesterton, in full obnoxious prosyletizing mode! Sorry, but it kind of does.
But by all means, read the previous Questions, they’re fascinating and educational. The longer essays are interesting, too. Also, never trust a group of philosophers discussing 9/11 on TV or radio, because they’re rarely any good at it, and they too may cause a little machinery-smashing. Also also, my father informs me that Law & Order has in fact run an episode in which a polygraph test was shown to give a false positive…so if you’re ever asked to take a lie detector test by a bunch of cops, don’t just refuse, be sure to also reference that episode as the reason for your refusal! I really cannot stress this enough.
Furthermore, watch the parking meters.
I think that’s probably all for now.