I AM ruled by a temper intolerant of the metaphysical, by a temper manifested in a keen readiness to adjust my ideas and revise my convictions, such as I have, promptly and repeatedly, by the discovery of new, maturing, probative evidence.
AC Grayling expresses the rather obvious succinctly — the “aim of philosophical inquiry (thinking; reflection; the application of mind) is to gain insight into questions about knowledge, truth, reason, reality, meaning, mind and value." (My parenthesis.)
Philosophy 101 is pretty clear: “Philosophy is a study of problems which are ultimate, abstract and very general. These problems are concerned with the nature of existence, knowledge, morality, reason and human purpose" (from Philosophy: A Beginner's Guide by Jenny Teichman and Katherine Evans).
And as I find grounding in the statement by Wittgenstein that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”, my journey of discovery follows a serendipitous course through the bewilderment of language, the medium through which the world reveals itself.
I say at once, and in short: the dynamic of life is without meaning. We humans are but parasites and the propagation of the species is the sole purpose: the meaning of life. Yet, by our intelligence, meaning — the entire increasing three score and ten propagation — is swamped with awe and wonderment, reducing god and religion not only to superfluity but to something vexatious, pestilent.
Consider the constructs of Shakespeare. The presence of a lover at dawn and the intimacy of such spousal commitment. The colours of Matisse. The mystic concrete of Le Corbusier. Animation by Pixar. AI. The form of Picasso. Frank Gehry’s deconstructivist masses. The paradoxes, illusions and ambiguity of Maurits Escher. Mies van der Rohe’s “less is more”. Al Pacino’s ebullitions. The sacrifices of Paul Morphy en route to an inevitable opposition checkmate. The intellectual bravery of Giordano Bruno — simply the first name that comes to mind; there are so many. The sombre clarity of Caravaggio. The risible neurotic despair of Woody Allen. The plodding insight and laborious denouement of a Chief Inspector Endeavour “Pagan” Morse mystery. The contradictions in the character of Sherlock Holmes. The blues of Belgium-born South African artist Jan Vermeiren. One of those all too regular Max Verstappen weekends when everyone from the janitor to the pilot just clicks in that Red Bull F1 team. A new writer. The way the waves pound the shore at Pringle Bay on the Cape south coast. Springbok single-point victories at the death.
Richard Dawkins famously wrote: “The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored… if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies… are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. 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."
Scientific pronouncements on the dynamic of life are in stark contrast to religion’s arguments maintaining meaning by virtue of man’s unique place in the universe, capped by an extraordinary relationship with some divine supposition.
Carl Sagan once remarked on humankind, “… star stuff contemplating star stuff…”, and is quoted in “A tribute to Carl Sagan" by Dan Lewandowski and John Stear as saying: “We live on a hunk of rock and metal that circles a humdrum star that is one of 400 billion other stars that make up the Milky Way galaxy which is one of billions of other galaxies which make up a universe which may be one of a very large number, perhaps an infinite number, of other universes. That is a perspective on human life and our culture that is well worth pondering.”
Darwin put ephemeral life in its proper place by identifying humans as a motley collection of multiplex molecules. Religion, maintaining everlasting life for the virtuous after death, cannot be reconciled with this reality.
What vertex of religious hubris arrogates meaning and purpose for us hirsute carbon sacks of inchoate compost and salty water? What arrant arrogance drives us to believe the stars rise and set for us (Sagan again), that the universe exists for us, that we are somehow immortal, created in the image of some imagined cosmic manipulator?
Religion teaches the dangerous nonsense that death is not the end. The finite nature of human life, some 700,000 hours of it, should focus humans on the precious nature of the random gift of life. We who are about to die are fortunate, for we are the ones that have, against all odds, managed to live.
We are born by a vanishingly small chance. Dr Ali Binazir calculates the probability at one in 10 2,685,000. By comparison, it has been suggested that one has a 30,000 times better chance of finding a particular atom in the multiverse. Beat that with a stick.
We must find a new way: disrupting religion in pursuit of evidence-based knowledge, happiness, comfort, succour, intimacy, morality, meaning, awe and wonderment, and the pursuit of evolving understanding.
Meaning, such as there is, is to be found in the domain of facts, not stories or oracles; in evidence, not opinion; in theory, not hypotheses; in reason, not belief; in science, not religion.
One may find the promise of a saner society in this sanguine remark of Minette Marrin: “Scientists, increasingly, have become our public intellectuals, to whom we look for explanations and solutions. These may be partial and imperfect, but they are more satisfactory than the alternatives… If there are any answers to life’s greatest questions, or if there are other questions that we should be asking instead, it is science that will provide them.”
No measure of exegetical contortion and interpretive prevarication can deny the fallaciousness of “god" creating humans only to have them suffer sickness and mishap before their defective bodies are ultimately undone. No abundance of Rorschach hermeneutics can impart “meaning" to an ephemeral created life. There simply has to be more. And the more is eternal life, a function of bodily resurrection, a function of creation, a function of “god".
“Certain beliefs", observes Sam Harris, “are so lacking in merit that there should be no question of our ‘respecting' them. People who claim to be certain about things they cannot be certain about should meet resistance in our discourse. This happens quite naturally on every subject but religion. For instance, a person who believes that Elvis is still alive (Jesus lives!) is very unlikely to get promoted to a position of great power and responsibility in our society. Neither will a person who believes that the Holocaust was a hoax (evolution is nonsense!). But people who believe equally irrational things about God and the Bible are running countries, corporations and schools. This is genuinely terrifying. We must find a way of criticising and marginalising bad ideas, even when they come under the cloak of religion." (My parentheses.)
Scientific pronouncements on the dynamic of life are in stark contrast to religion’s arguments maintaining meaning by virtue of man’s unique place in the universe, capped by an extraordinary relationship with god.
In deference to Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death, I submit that taking life seriously means something such as this: that whatever one does on this planet has to be done in the lived certainty of the terror of origin, of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic from the fault line of existence. Otherwise, it is false. Whatever is achieved must be achieved with the full exercise of vision, fear, pain, sorrow, joy and passion.
I propose that our imagined relief may, indeed, be the very reason for hatred, because our imagined gods and life everlasting distract from the terror of existence.
This deviation, this anomaly, this outré distortion of reality, this unfounded faith may well be the aberration that constrains our benevolence.
We humans have only each other against the terror of existence. The terror provides the impetus for survival and drives us together against the common threat.
Any deviation from this code represents disaster.
To die is to be most fortunate by an inconceivably frail margin; not because death is preferred to life but because death can only follow birth, and birth provides life and its splendour.
Can the vapid hallucination of a child or a grandmother bereft of choice in some Goldilocks-style just-right environment made consummately tedious by the absence of chance trump the innate energy of life?
Joy in death?
Incredible by traditional diktat; real by energetic living to the full.
We should revel in the urgency of life’s transience. Meaning, such as there is, lurks in the celebration of the imperative of fugacity.
♦ VWB ♦
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