Tuesday, October 15, 2013

What Do We Mean When We Talk About Meaning?

I knew I shouldn't have started reading a nonfiction book today!  I got bogged down taking notes and thinking about writing a blog post, instead of finishing this fairly short book and moving on to some of the others that are piled up around the apartment.

The book is The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene (Acumen Publishing, 2010) by the philosopher Mary Midgley.  I was thinking about the online dispute about atheism I'd joined on Facebook the other day, so I began looking up some useful resources, and Midgley came to mind.  I hadn't read anything new by her in some time, so I decided to see if she'd published anything recently.  She is, after all, ninety-six years old now, but she's gone on writing.

Richard Dawkins has long been one of her targets, and one reason I like Midgley is that she once provoked him into yammering that she was mean to him: her "highly intemperate and vicious paper" was "hard to match, in reputable journals, for its patronising condescension toward a fellow academic."  I'd say that Dawkins needs to get out more, but of course the irony lies in his own attack-dog manner: he loves to dish it out but he can't take it.

At any rate, The Solitary Self is a brief discussion of the importance of sociability in nature, and in particular among human beings.  Midgley accepts Darwinian evolution, but holds that Darwin didn't imagine all life as engaged in cutthroat competition: he recognized that cooperation was at least as important as competition, but this aspect of his theorizing got much less attention as natural selection came to be thought of as the sole driver of change in species.

Maybe I'm jumping ahead, but I was struck by Midgley's remarks in the book's introduction that she will begin by "turn[ing] to the vast topic of cosmic meaning":
Dawkins, Peter Atkins and others present the claim that the universe is meaningless as something factual, scientific and, more specifically, Darwinian.  Their ground for considering the biosphere -- or sometimes the whole cosmos -- to be meaningless is that it is ruled by natural selection, which they present as simply a form of chance or, as Jacques Monod put it, a lottery.  From this they conclude, as Steven Weinberg did at the end of The First Three Minutes, that "this is an overwhelmingly hostile universe ... The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless" ...

Darwin, however, made no such claim.  Although he abandoned the rather naive Christianity of his childhood, he remained deeply impressed by cosmic order and still saw that order as akin to mind.  Questions about the transcendent still struck him not as meaningless, but as genuinely mysterious.  He did not think we could expect certainty about them.  And, of course, this view fits well with the thought that our faculties have largely been evolved for more modest uses.

But his tentative attitude also fits well with that of many physicists today who are struck by the coincidences that are emerging in the cosmic order: quite specific arrangements, like the cosmological constant, for which no reason can be given.  .. Randomness is not, after all, something that could ever be scientifically established.  Taking it for granted it is more a matter of temperament and intellectual fashion than of reasoning [11f].
I don't think I consider it "factual" that the universe is meaningless.  I do think that I'd need pretty good reasons to accept any meaning that someone dreams up and offers.  Walter Kaufmann talked about what he called the exegetical fallacy, which consists of reading one's own ideas into a text and getting them back endowed with the text's authority; I think this fallacy is also at work when people claim to have found "meaning" in the universe and try to impose it on everyone else, because, like, the Universe told them!  Finding meaning in the universe is like seeing a cloud that looks like an owl: the owl isn't there, it's in our heads.  I don't think the universe's lack of meaning is a problem, though, because there's no reason it should have a meaning, or a purpose, or a point.  Human beings are meaning-makers; we give ourselves meaning, we have purposes.  Where we get them from is an open question, but if a god existed, where would it get meanings and purposes?

What bothered me about this passage was the false opposites.  Randomness is not the opposite of meaning, for example.  But like all opposites, it has meaning only because its opposite (whatever you think it is) exists.  Order relies on disorder; meaning needs meaninglessness.  The universe exists prior to meaning, so in that sense you can reject both claims of meaning and meaninglessness, just as you can reject claims that the universe loves you and that it hates you.  The universe isn't hostile, but neither does it care.  It's not apathetic either, since apathy implies that it could care but doesn't.  There's no reason I know of to assign intention to the universe.  That could change with new knowledge, but for now the burden of argument lies on those who want to ascribe meaning to the world apart from human interests.

Mysteriousness is just fine with me, but again, that says more about us and the limitations of our minds than it says about the universe.  Given the common human tendency to convince ourselves that we know more than we actually do, a becoming humility is in order.

Midgley goes on say:
Thus, in the organic as well as the inorganic world, matter itself seems to contain tendencies to develop in one way rather than another.  No extraneous, engineering God on the seventeenth-century model is needed to make this possible, although the traditional theological idea of an immanent God, pervading and animating the world, is perfectly compatible with it [13].
More false opposites.  Before there was an extraneous, engineering God there was an extraneous craftsman God, making Adam out of dust.  Or an extraneous magician God, creating by declaration: Let there be light, and there was light.  The "traditional theological idea of an immanent God" has its own problems.  It should not be confused with "traditional" ideas of God as a kind of all-powerful person.  A theological, immanent God, it seems to me, is the result of rejecting traditional ideas of deity but wanting to hang on to the name.  I also have this feeling about Process theology, for instance: much of it makes some sense to me, but I see no reason to call the processes it describes "God."  For one thing, it is bound to lead to confusion, not only when trying to talk to philosophical laymen but when philosophers talk to each other.  I've noticed that they tend to equivocate between different conceptions of gods, without realizing that they're doing it.  One of the more egregious leaps of this kind was used by Thomas Aquinas in his proofs for God's existence: "And this," he would conclude, "all men understand to be God."  But they don't, not really, because his philosopher's god was not the god of popular, "traditional" theism.  It seems to me preferable to leave talk of gods out of serious philosophy, if only to avoid this kind of confusion.  I'll consider reintroducing the term provisionally if it serves some useful purpose, but so far I haven't seen any cases where that was true.  The burden of argument, again, lies on the advocate for God-talk.

I think Midgley's remark about "the rather naive Christianity of [Darwin's] youth" also indicates something gone wrong in her discussion.  Whose childhood religion isn't naive?  Midgley certainly knows more than I do about Darwin's life and intellectual development, but what I've read about him indicates that he rejected Christianity and theism pretty thoroughly as an adult.  He didn't adopt a more sophisticated Christianity, whatever that would be.  Though Midgley herself is not a Christian, she reminds me of Richard Seymour in her tendency to cut Christianity too much slack.