Wednesday, May 18, 2011

That "just" gets to me

Idealists of all schools, aristocrats and bourgeois, theologians and metaphysicians, politicians and moralists, religionists, philosophers, or poets, not forgetting the liberal economists - unbounded worshippers of the ideal, as we know - are much offended when told that man, with his magnificent intelligence, his sublime ideas, and his boundless aspirations, is, like all else existing in the world, nothing but matter, only a product of vile matter.

We may answer that the matter of which materialists speak, matter spontaneously and eternally mobile, active, productive, matter chemically or organically determined and manifested by the properties or forces, mechanical, physical, animal, and intelligent, which necessarily belong to it - that this matter has nothing in common with the vile matter of the idealists. The latter, a product of their false abstraction, is indeed a stupid, inanimate, immobile thing, incapable of giving birth to the smallest product, a caput mortuum, an ugly fancy in contrast to the beautiful fancy which they call God; as the opposite of this supreme being, matter, their matter, stripped by that constitutes its real nature, necessarily represents supreme nothingness. They have taken away intelligence, life, all its determining qualities, active relations or forces, motion itself, without which matter would not even have weight, leaving it nothing but impenetrability and absolute immobility in space; they have attributed all these natural forces, properties, and manifestations to the imaginary being created by their abstract fancy; then, interchanging rôles, they have called this product of their imagination, this phantom, this God who is nothing, "supreme Being" and, as a necessary consequence, have declared that the real being, matter, the world, is nothing. After which they gravely tell us that this matter is incapable of producing anything, not even of setting itself in motion, and consequently must have been created by their God.
I’ve always liked this quotation from Bakunin’s God and the State. I had a disagreement with a friend recently about religious consolation, and Stephen Hawking’s recent comments reminded me that I’ve been meaning to post about it. The argument my friend was making is superficially plausible: even if the fact claims of religion are false, we should not make an issue about this, and even view holding them as positive, because they provide comfort to religious people. There are, of course, several claimed elements of this comfort: in facing loss and death, in believing one’s life has a “greater purpose,” in reducing uncertainty, etc. In a recent post I referred, as I so often do, to Allen Wood’s work on the ethics of belief, and argued that the justifications that religion provides personal consolation and that it leads people to be better not only fail as responses to Wood’s challenge but contradict one another in the process.

I noted then Wood’s discussion of how the consolation justification is inconsistent with human dignity and self-respect. One particular facet, though, has long irked me. (I’m not the first to make this argument, of course, but since it bothers me I’m going to write about it.) My problem is specifically with the idea that religious “meaning” or “purpose” or the god around which these center are consoling beliefs because otherwise the universe or earth or we would be “just” material. I hate that “just.”

Stars, meteors, rockets, rocks, animals, plants, oceans, lightning, gases, brains, and all of the history of the processes tying it all together over billions of years… - the word “just,” the idea of "just," has no place here. But the consolation argument, perversely, rests on it – rests on the promotion of a view of the cosmos, including ourselves, as “just” “a stupid, inanimate, immobile thing.” And so this view has to be encouraged, and it is. It’s taught to children, and then presented as natural, with the pretense that children will only take joy and fascination in their world if it’s coated in cheap syrup. Since people “naturally” believe that everything is nothing, the consolation of religion – of all sorts, including New Age woo – will always be necessary. Worst of all, this idea is unchallenged and even proffered by people who claim to promote science, as though reducing all of nature to a grey nothingness, to live with which people need the consolation of religious dross, didn’t fundamentally deny the interest and pleasure of science and life itself. I hate that “just.”

As I was writing this, I read about Richard Dawkins’ new children’s book. I hope it’s good. Sounds like a wonderful gift.

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