“This above all: to thine own self be true.”
William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, scene 2.
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
Watching the materialists tangle themselves into linguistic and intellectual knots in the comment thread over at my On Self Evident Moral Truth post put me in mind of these two famous quotations. Let me explain.
Astronomers estimate the universe contains more than 100 billion galaxies and 300 sextillion (3X10^23) stars. On the atheist/materialist account, I am nothing but a jumped up hairless ape walking around on my hind legs on a speck of dust orbiting another speck of dust in a collection of dust specks we call the Milky Way. If a jumped up ape says torturing children for fun is objectively immoral why, on the atheist/materialist account, should anyone care? The answer, of course, is there is no reason, and honest atheists admit this:
“No ultimate foundation for ethics exists.” Will Provine
“Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory.” Michael Ruse
“Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before.” Thomas Huxley
Given materialist premises (i.e., that the universe contains particles in motion and nothing more), these conclusions are unassailable. Nevertheless, multiple materialists have entered the comment thread of my earlier post proclaiming both their materialism and their belief in objective transcendent moral truth. Other materialists have come onto this website proudly proclaiming that they do not believe the law of non-contradiction – the logical axiom that underlies all rational discourse and even rationality itself!
What are we to make of this? I have a theory. For a couple of hundred years now, the standard historical narrative has been that “superstition” (often a barely disguised synonym for traditional religion) has steadily retreated in the face of the ever advancing triumphs of materialist science. After Darwin this narrative gained more and more momentum until it became one of the central organizing myths of the secular orthodoxy that holds among our intellectual elites.
The problem with this narrative (besides being false) is that while a little bit of science was good for atheism, a lot of science turned out to be bad for it. In the last few decades scientific discovery after scientific discovery has knocked the pins out from under the materialist worldview. First, Hubble’s discoveries made belief in an eternal universe increasingly untenable and ultimately lead to the standard model of cosmology (with atheists kicking and screaming all along the way). Then along comes Watson and Crick, whose discovery of DNA leads us ultimately to the realization that INFORMATION is at the very center of life. As if that were not enough, advances in microscope technology have allowed us to peer ever deeper into the inner workings of the cell, and we did not find the “simple globule of protoplasm” imagined by Ernst Haeckel. Instead we found molecular machines that are astoundingly complex marvels of nanotechnology. Finally, in recent years scientists have come to understand that not just one or two but numerous variables are finely tuned for the existence of carbon based life in this universe and on this planet in particular. Only a few years ago no one knew we lived on a Goldilocks planet in a Goldilocks universe.
It is as if the secular narrative has been turned on its head. Now, instead of religion retreating in the face of scientific advances, more and more it is atheistic materialism that retreats in the face of new discoveries. Or does it? What is a self-respecting atheist to do, after all, when the science he holds paramount above all things points to a singularity (another word for “the beginning”), or information at the center of life, or irreducibly complex nano-machinery in every cell, or finely tuned physical constants?
The answer is the atheist can jettison his atheism or he can jettison his rationality. He cannot keep both. He is faced with a choice. Will he hew unto Shakespeare and be true to himself? Or will he go the way of Whitman and embrace internal contradictions at the price of giving up on rationality itself?
One would think that the people we are talking about would embrace Shakespeare. After all, their rhetoric is Shakespearian to the core: “Follow the evidence wherever it might lead even if it compels us to abandon our most deeply held and cherished beliefs” has been the clarion cry of science for centuries. But if one were to think this, one would be wrong. Many choose Whitman, because, in the famous words of atheist Richard Lewontin, their “materialism is absolute,” and when faced with a choice between jettisoning their materialism or jettisoning their claim to rationality, many atheists will gladly discard their claim to rationality.
Consider, for example, multiverse theory. Multiverse proponents try to cloak their theories in the mantle of science. But nothing could be more obvious than that multiverse theory is pure metaphysics. Now, there is nothing wrong with metaphysics as such. Indeed, metaphysics is inevitable. As C.S. Lewis said, we cannot go on “seeing through” forever. We stop seeing through when we reach first principles, and those first principles are accepted a priori. That they cannot be demonstrated and must be simply accepted is what makes them first principles. Everyone has first principles, and that is why metaphysics is inevitable.
The problem comes when multiverse theorists attempt to explain away all of the observations by saying essentially, “we live in an infinite multiverse in which everything that can possibly happen does happen and we just happen to live in a universe where life arose.” Is it not obvious, though, that multiverse theory, at least in this form, strikes at the very foundation of rationality? If everything that happens happens through sheer random chance, then the explanation for everything is “sheer random chance.” Why was Hitler a genocidal maniac and Mother Teresa a saint? On multiverse theory the answer is “sheer random chance.” Hitler and Mother Teresa just happened to live in a universe where things worked out that way. In the universe next door Mother Teresa turned out to be the genocidal maniac and Hitler is a world renowned philanthropist. Obviously, any theory that accounts for everything and its opposite with equal alacrity is irrational.
Consider also Richard Dawkins’ moralizing. He has written that in the universe we observe there is “no purpose, no evil and no good” But as we have recently discussed at length in these pages, Dawkins has taken upon himself the task of liberating his moral and intellectual inferiors from the sexual mores that inhibit them from cheating on their spouse and lying about it. Set aside the sheer lunacy of his conclusions. If he takes his own premises seriously (no good; no evil) then talk of “morality” in the objective sense is meaningless. Nevertheless, here he is going on and on about “morality” as if the word has some meaning other than “Richard Dawkins’ opinion.” Madness.
What is going on here? The answer is, of course, obvious. Some atheists want to have their cake and eat it too. When it suits them they want freedom from the constraints on the exercise of their will that belief in God entails. Yet they cannot bear to face the moral nihilism that goes hand in glove with atheistic materialism. Therefore, when it suits them they are perfectly content to say that an objective transcendent moral code actually exists. “Of course, it is always wrong to torture a child for fun.”
Either they do not know they have sold their rationality for a mess of pottage or (more likely in my view) they do not care. After all, accepting that in a fair debate both sides will adhere to the rules of logic and not make contradictory arguments is not a rule of logic itself. It is a moral rule (thus the word “fair”). And in their world that moral rule is not binding (unless they want it to be).
5 Replies to “Shakespeare or Whitman?”
Very excellent writing and argument.
Perhaps, if the information in life is so very large, it took the information in every one of these 300 sextillion stars combined to make life. That is, thinking of the universe as a “front-loaded” machine that is designed for life.
If so, then rather than being a mote of dust in the eye of God, I am the “apple of his eye”, the center of the not just the solar system, not just the galaxy, but of the entire universe.
It’s all a matter of perspective.
Alas, it is the foolish father Polonius who advises Laertes to be true to himself. Polonius dies ignominiously, stabbed while hiding. Laertes becomes a pawn of Claudius, even after the young nobleman’s temper cools and allows him to reconcile with Hamlet before their fatal fight.
Just sayin’. In the end, grand old Whitman may have been onto something, although he had little truck with the learned astronomers.
Very nice post Mr. Arrington, although I agree with LT on one point, Whitman seems, to my very superficial knowledge of him, to be much more complex than the one quote you used from him would indicate. For instance:
Well, I do love both!