Friday, April 20, 2007

To bear with unbearable sorrow

Dinesh D’Souza seems to feel that a time of mourning and tragedy is clearly the appropriate time to get some licks in on those damned atheists. Presumably, though atheism doesn’t appear to be a source of great comfort to the community of Blacksburg, Virginia (more on which later), D’Souza’s God and His great and unknowable plan were around there somewhere, mourning Cho Seung-Hui’s misuse of his free will in order to slaughter people and loving the misanthropic lunatic all the same. Yes, I can see how faith in the non-interventionist but loving and don’t-you-dare-be-mad-at-Him-because-you-can’t-know-His-plans God would be a great comfort.

Wait. No I can’t. But that’s my own issue. I’m not one to cast stones at whatever gives people comfort in a time of grief and confusion. Religion has a great deal of utility in providing shelter against incomprehensible fear and horror, as well as being a wonderful method of comforting the grieving. I don’t find it necessary, but that’s me. “To each their own” has its appropriate uses, and this seems to be one of them.

D’Souza uses an interesting rhetorical trick, though. He’s casting the Problem of Evil on its head, using it as a metaphysical stick against atheism, rather than its typical target, theism. Say what you will about his (specious) thought, the man’s a damned decent writer, and I tip my hat to him putting the shoe on the other foot. The flaw comes in his approach however. As a devoutly religious individual, D’Souza sees no other way for atheism approach grief, or the Problem of Evil, than as he would as a Christian.

Atheism does not invoke itself as a metaphysical governing philosophy, other than to say, “there’s no God we can comprehend or know” – and really, all the atheist does is add one more God (the Abrahamic one) to the list of gods most other people don’t believe in – and proceed on its merry way to figure everything else out on its own. But D’Souza can’t seem to comprehend that (indeed, as a devout Christian, such thinking is likely completely alien to him); atheists must rely upon some sort of metaphysical order, and so he seizes upon scientific materialism as the end-all-be-all of the atheist’s moral and cognitive schema. And since scientific materialism cannot account for Why Evil Happens, atheism must therefore be fundamentally flawed.

I shouldn’t have to point out the venial flaw in that logic to a learned audience. But, somehow, I have the sneaking suspicion that I do. Atheism does not entail scientific materialism, even when the two dovetail nicely. Atheism doesn’t need to account for the Problem of Evil because it does not lay claim to an underlying metaphysical order, does not ascribe characteristics to itself or its object (indeed, it lacks an object to begin with), and does not subscribe to an overarching narrative (unlike the forms of theism to which the Problem of Evil is usually applied, like Christianity). A Mysterian attitude seems appropriate here: Evil is something that happens, for many reasons, many of which we cannot comprehend or perceive. That we know it exists is enough. We can delve into the psychological factors that motivated Mr. Cho, and thereby understand him, but we can never truly learn why he did what he did. Ascribing that final motivation to another agency, like Satan, is simply an admittance of being uncomfortable with incomplete knowledge.

Atheism simply removes God from the equation. We don’t need to appeal to His (or Her, or Its, or Their...) authority in order to make sense of the world and feel secure in the midst of its insanity. Atheists in Blacksburg (if there are any) are deriving comfort from the same human means and agencies that everyone else is: The outpourings of empathy and collective grief, the coherence of a community drawn together by mutual sadness. Whether that community invokes God or not, they are coalescing around the same tragedy and using the very same deeply, profoundly, and ineluctable traits that make us gloriously human. I, for one, take great comfort and pride in the irrepressible potential for resilience and compassion within humankind. And that’s all the metaphysics I need.

[James Elliott is the proprietor of Often Right, Rarely Correct. This essay is original to The Barefoot Bum—ed.]


  1. Very nice, James.

    Atheism just means no belief in God, but none of the major atheistic philosophies, e.g. scientific materialism/physicalism or Humanism, "address" such an horrific tragedy by making "everything all right".

    This massacre is not all right. It's not part of any greater plan, and if it is, I want no part of such a plan.

    It's one thing to provide comfort and care to individuals so they can recover their psychological health after such a trauma. If God talk can give the survivors and the community comfort, I'm all for it.

    It's quite another thing to encourage people to be in any way complacent about such a tragedy. I do not believe we should ever be complacent about tragedy.

    And it's an even different thing—quite an evil thing—to positively milk this tragedy to advance one's political and theological ideology.

  2. Yes quite eloquent. Nonetheless, I do think the theists raise a somewhat important point about the atheist's inability to account for evil, though I do not think it is some "necessary" point. It's really the "if atheism is correct, then Hitler was just a bad monkey" meme (poorly conditioned, or out of step with his peers, etc.), if you will (ok, not quite as eloquent as Doc Elliott here). However horrid it sounds, there are people who probably are not offended by Cho's murderous deed (or by Hitler/Stalin, etc.). So why are they mistaken BB? Yes, it's somewhat obvious, and you have covered this perhaps, but I hold that the Humean skeptic (your position, tho' you might term it differently) at most can say something like mass murder, while apparently "painful" (who's to say "good" could not result from Cho's horrible acts however?), is not to his taste, or it's the minority opinion/deviant, therefore mistaken (and however odd it sounds, a pro-Cho faction could become majority opinion, as say fascism did in Germany etc.). The somewhat theist might grant that he cannot really defend his code across the board, but that code does put a Cho in, well, a very unpleasant locale...........

  3. Perezoso: you raise interesting questions which I address here.

  4. Perezoso,

    Why is it that someone who is metaphysically skeptical must needs content themselves with utilitarianism? That seems to be all that you're describing, and it's a false dichotomy. Atheism doesn't exclude moral realism.

  5. No. For instance, Gewirth's position is NOT the "hedonic" ethics of utilitarianism or based on consensus; one might term Gewirth's ideas as advanced "reciprocity ethics", but really, he argues for an objective right based on reciprocity or identification; yet I have to grant that BB sort of suggests a real and perhaps obvious issue: Does Gewrith shift a supposed obligation to be moral (recognize other's rights) to something like an obligation for the agent to identify herself (and her valuing of her own entitlement right) with other agents? Perhaps. The argument still seems cogent to me, but I need to review R % M---I think that is the "criterion of relevant similarities".

    Consider this very reduced version/modification of Gewirth:

    All human-agents need certain bio-economic resources (food, shelter, employment, etc) (that to me is the economic aspect of that I think Gewrith overlooks, tho his theory still sort of encapsulates it).

    Humans value those necessaries and resources, and (ala Gewrith) in effect (by acting to obtain necessaries) implicitly or explicitly endorse a claim that they OUGHT to have sufficient liberty to obtain those resources. (and object when they are restricted/or have limited access--which shows the valuing: and certainly that can be demonstrated in various ways).

    Thus an individual human-agent X needs and values those necessaries.

    He therefore must concede (ala Gewirth/Hooker) that any other human-agents have the same right to those bio-economic necessaries, and that he ought to respect those rights.

    A bit sketchy, but er, Master Hume is in check (tho' skeptic Hume would unlikely grant the premise that all humans need to eat anyways).

  6. Peresozo:

    ... He therefore must concede (ala Gewirth/Hooker) that any other human-agents have the same right to those bio-economic necessaries, and that he ought to respect those rights.

    The arbitrary enthymeme in your argument is that the approval of eating is a conscious, rational conclusion from the presumption of the biological necessity. However, this is simply not the case. My hunger is painful to me; satiation of my hunger is pleasurable to me. On the other hand—absent the fact of empathy—your hunger is not painful to me, etc.

    The key is relevant in the "criterion of relevant similarities." The decision about relevance is entirely subjective.

    Remember, I'm not criticizing your actual ethics. I suspect that our actual ethics are vastly more similar than they are dissimilar. What is in dispute is the philosophical basis of our ethical beliefs.

    I am indeed empathic, that is a fact about my mind—a subjective fact—not a rational decision I've made about objective truth. I therefore do conclude, by virtue of that subjective fact, to consider as a relevant ethical similarity that hunger does indeed cause you pain.

  7. The point is that it's not just empathy, but an identity function; you do need food, and so do your neighbors. So there is biologicaly necessity of some sort (food, shelter, employment, transportation, perhaps significant other, etc.): it seems very strange to say that people do not have a right to obtain those necessaries, and that they do not value their goals, doesn't it? Were rights claims simply a matter of subjective empathy (compassion, etc.), then you are back to utilitarianism and consensus and mob democracy, if not anarchy/state of nature (and I think Gewirth was attempting to establish a political foundation as well).

    The negation of Gewirth's basic claim suggests the argument is cogent, it seems. Intuitively, it seems quite reasonable to suggest that people do endorse their agency and freedom to obtain goods. And Hooker (not the most concise of writers) doesn't really say Gewirth was wrong; indeed I don't think Hooker even denies the "identity function" aspect. You can say you don't care about X's rights to obtain economic goods, but you CAN'T say he doesn't have a right, or he doesn't value his own freedom: ask him! He does, even if for a few more minutes of life (Cho heading to the Hall with his AK). You are simply saying you don't recognize his own agency and freedom to pursue economic goals: so in effect you are saying he is not a human-agent like you are, which is irrational. That part seems correct: the relevant similarity tho' I suggest is more economic than simply agency qua agency: the agency (liberty, unencumberedness) is valued since it is a requirement to obtain economic goods. What's the alternative? Malthusian anarchy? fascist dictatorship?, marxist-statism? Without some clearly defined bio-economic right, I suggest we endorse a Hobbesian/Malthusian state of nature.

  8. Of course bullshit oozing down his leg dosent mention that peace loving "christian" Amerika was founded on genocide, slavery and grand theft, or that the USA accounts for 48% of the worlds armaments trade. Or that USA "culture" is dominated by the "values" and ethos Pentagon military-industrial complex and its juniour partner the NRA and its gun "culture" ---the "culture" of death rules!

    Indeed he celebrates all of that with grand enthusiasm.


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