The article “Jaws and the Meaning of Life” has resulted in much commentary and email. Also a lot of confusion.
In that article I said “If life can be reduced to biology, to nothing but chemical and physical interactions — as many atheists claim — then the explanation that all life, including our own, is meaningless futile repetition must be true.”
This is exactly right. All attempts to escape this sad truth, like Sam Harris’s “do no unnecessary harm” principle and Stefan Molyneux’s Universally Preferable Behaviour: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, are doomed to failure. (Molyneux opens his book declaring ought can’t be derived from is, and then proceeds to do just that; i.e. preferable behavior derived from biology.)
Let’s be very clear what is being proved in my meaning-of-life article and what is not. What is proved is that if atheism is true, then nothing matters. No moral truth is a real truth, and all morals are opinion and prejudice. What is not proved, or even claimed, is that atheists cannot discover true moral laws. Of course they can.
Suppose a group of skeptics claim gravity does not exist. They are insistent. “The earth does not suck!” they argue. They form clubs denying gravity. They wear stingy-brimmed fedoras to identify themselves at their meetings at the Burger King. They petition school boards to exclude all gravity education, claiming only the religious believe in gravity. “Separate church and gravity-free state!” They say things like, “Actually, it’s covalent bonding that keeps people from flying into space.” (They say “actually” a lot.) You say “Yet people fall”, and they say, “Actually, that’s not an argument.”
So gravity doesn’t exist. Now suppose the Gravity Skeptics work very hard and produce the document How To Walk Around Rooftops. In this page-turner, a leading gravity denier says, “Whatever you do, stay away from the edge of roofs. The covalent bonds aren’t sticky there. You can’t fall, because falling requires gravity, which is impossible, but injuries have been reported.”
Our skeptics have hit upon swell advice. Even medieval gravity believers would be well to heed it. To avoid injury, stay away from the edge of roofs!
Now it does not matter that the reason gravity skeptics give about avoiding rooftop strolls is wrong. The advice itself is correct. It is correct even though they deny gravity.
The conclusion is that gravity skeptics can discover true safety tips, just like skeptics of God can discover true moral laws. An atheist might say (outside a socialist paradise) “Murder is wrong”, as Stefan Molyneux does (p. 73). The atheist would be right to say murder is wrong, just as the gravity denier was right to shun high places. But whatever ultimate explanation the atheist gives for a moral truth will itself be wrong. It will inconsistent, somewhere, with his professed atheism. Because, if atheism is true, then nothing matters.
Consistent atheism requires believing nothing is of any consequence. The reason is simple. You can’t trust “reason” if atheism is true. Why, after all, should reason be trusted to lead anybody to any correct belief? “Reason” is nothing more—and this is strict—than certain brain chemicals taking this or that configuration. You may claim evolution has led these chemicals to, more or less, align themselves with what is true, but that claim is itself nothing but certain configurations of brain chemicals, so how do you know the claim about the claim is true? You don’t. There is no way you can step outside these configurations and make judgments—not if atheism is true. Every judgment is nothing but chemicals in certain positions.
This point was better made by CS Lewis in Miracles (p. 23).
All possible knowledge, then, depends on the validity of reasoning. If the feeling of certainty which we express by words like must be and therefore and since is a real perception of how things outside our own minds really “must” be, well and good. But if this certainty is merely a feeling in our own minds and not a genuine insight into realities beyond them—if it merely represents the way our minds happen to work—then we can have no knowledge. Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true.
Finally (p. 24; ellipsis original):
[A] strict materialism refutes itself for the reason given long ago by Professor Haldane: “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true…and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.” (Possible Worlds, p. 209.)
If atheism is true, then the world is nothing but material and energy acted on forces. It would be a mistake to say these forces are “blind” or “indifferent”, because that metaphor implies an over-arching intelligence somewhere. None exists if atheism is true.
If atheism is true, life doesn’t matter, death doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if any human lives or dies or suffers or experiences pleasure. You may say these things are good or bad, with reference to this or that person, but this is only the result of those brain chemicals configuring themselves in such a way as to make you “care”. You can’t even properly “care” for yourself, because you are nothing but a bag of chemicals operating on by forces. Whatever you think or feel is nothing but the result of the chemicals being pushed this way or that. There isn’t really any you behind the meaningless chemical-induced feelings.
That sounds absurd, because it is. Of course we exist, and we have experiences greater than mere chemical interactions. Avoiding unnecessary harm and murder are good things, because people really do matter. And they matter because atheism is false.
(It will now be a treat to wait for the first atheist to respond, “Well, I do exist and I matter” as if I would disagree. But if this atheist were consistent he’d say “I don’t exist and nothing matters.” )