Sunday, February 17, 2013

Goldberg on the Meaning of Life

In his latest G-File (an emailed newsletter), Jonah Goldberg ruminates on the meaning of life. After mentioning Robert Wright and Wright's interview with Edward Fredkin, and Fredkin's take on information as fundamental to the universe, Goldberg gives his view of things: 
But here's the thing. It doesn't matter whether it is literally true. It is metaphorically true. And in a way, metaphorical truth is more important. The meaning of life is found in the living of it. This not a materialistic, "you only live once" argument for hedonism. Rather, I'm simply acknowledging the fact that whatever meaning there is to our existence can only be gleaned from existence. If all you've got are shadows on the wall of Plato's cave, you learn what you can from the shadows.

We are all individually working out the math. I don't mean to belittle or sidestep religion, but to bolster it. Religion is metaphorical too, insofar as God's will is always a mystery and out of reach. But religion helps most people look beyond the material to the deeper purpose of all things. Atheists who hate religion, it seems to me, often really hate the language of religion because it doesn't speak to them or because they lack the imagination to see it in anything but the strictest and most literal terms.

Meanwhile, John Donne was right in the small-c catholic and big-C Catholic sense: No man is an island. And whether you want to say that we are "Each ... a piece of the continent, a part of the main," or whether you want to say that we are each working on our own little bit of the big math problem, you are still grasping at the shadows to describe a truth too big for your hands to recognize, but that your soul can feel
There are some things well said here, in particular "The meaning of life is found in the living of it." The reason is that what is known in the meaning of life is one and the same with the process of knowing it; the life that knows the meaning of life is no other life than the one for which the meaning is known. This is different from an objective pursuit like science, where the life of the scientist knowing science is entirely separate from the science known. It is thus possible to know science well but be utterly confused about the meaning of one's own existence. On the comic side, this results in shows like The Big Bang Theory, which feature brilliant scientists who give disquisitions on quantum mechanics one minute and display a childlike level of sophistication in social relationships, empathy and ethical reasoning the next. On the sinister side, it results in the phenomenon of Nazi scientists, who could perform experiments on subject persons that followed the strictest scientific protocols but were justified by the most crude moral reasoning. In contrast, a man such as Socrates, who understands the meaning of his own existence, necessarily reveals this knowledge in the manner in which he lives (see Crito and Phaedo). Offered an opportunity to escape from prison in the Crito so that he might pursue philosophy in some other city than Athens, Socrates demurs because such an escape would prove he is not truly a philosopher. The knowledge Socrates seeks is self-knowledge, which is nothing other than the meaning of his own life,  and since his reasoning has convinced him the citizen must submit to law, he must live that meaning in his own life or prove he doesn't really know what he says he knows.

But where Goldberg goes astray is in the common assumption that since the meaning of life must be found in the living of it, that meaning must be murky or only something you feel. The example of Socrates contradicts this. There is nothing murky or merely emotional about what Socrates tells us in the Crito. In fact it is perfectly clear and stated with Socrates's customary equanimity. What confuses us is that, unlike a solution to a math problem, we can't really know what Socrates tells us merely through his telling it; we can only know it to the extent that we have subjectively appropriated it, and no one can do that but ourselves. As Kierkegaard tells us, the subjective thinker understands that the difficulty with subjective knowledge is not knowing what is required, but in doing it. The modern way of thinking, however, only recognizes the objective aspect to knowledge, and so sensing that something is missing in the objective assertion of the meaning of life, but not grasping the missing element as a subjective thinker, the modern thinker collapses that missing subjective element into the objective equation, perceiving what is in fact plain to be murky or merely a matter of emotion.

There is also the unwarranted conclusion that since God is greater than us, God's will is always a mystery and out of reach. This is true if the only way we can know God's will is through our own efforts, i.e. our own attempts to reach up to God. But what if, rather than leaving us to our own devices, God chooses to reveal Himself to us in a manner that we can appropriate? Then we again have the situation where the real problem is not the objective content of what is known, but the manner and fact of its subjective appropriation.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Objective and Subjective Morality, with reference to Kierkegaard

Steven Novella has a post on objective and subjective morality at his blog here.  He introduces the discussion this way:
The discussion is between objective vs subjective morality, mostly focusing around a proponent of objective morality (commenter nym of Zach). Here I will lay out my position for a philosophical basis of morality and explain why I think objective morality is not only unworkable, it’s a fiction. 
First, let’s define “morality” and discuss why it is needed. Morality is a code of behavior that aspires to some goal that is perceived as good. The question at hand is where do morals and morality come from. I think this question is informed by the question of why we need morals in the first place. 
I maintain that morals can only be understood in the context of the moral actor. Humans, for example, have emotions and feelings. We care about stuff, about our own well being, about those who love, about our “tribe.” We also have an evolved sense of morality, such as the concepts of reciprocity and justice.
and later describes his position in this way:
Much of the prior discussion came to an impasse over this issue – are moral first principles, therefore, objective or subjective. This, I maintain, is a false dichotomy. They are complex, with some subjective aspects (the values) and some objective aspects (explorations of their universality and implications).
Novella subscribes to the Enlightenment derived fact-value distinction (empirical facts only describe the way things are, not the way they should be), which is the reason he says values are subjective. By "subjective" he means not rationally justifiable in a way that is publicly compelling, i.e. the way math and science are rationally publicly compelling.

Kierkegaard is invaluable in understanding what is really going on in these kinds of discussions. For we learn from Kierkegaard that this way of using "subjective" and "objective" obscures the truth, the existential truth, of our situation, and in that obscurity ethics can never appear. In fact Novella's entire discussion is taken objectively, and subjectivity is only considered objectively, when in truth subjectivity can only be understood subjectively.

There is only one truly subjective paragraph in the post, and that is the first:
I am fascinated by the philosophy of ethics, ever since I took a course in it in undergraduate school. This is partly because I enjoy thinking about complex systems (which partly explains why I ended up in Neurology as my specialty). I also greatly enjoy logic, and particularly deconstructing arguments (my own and others) to identify their logical essence and see if or where they go wrong.
The subject of a truly subjective statement can only be me; if I speak about someone else's subjectivity, I am speaking objectively about subjectivity. Truly subjective statements inevitably involve a story of becoming, as Novella mentions how he ended up in Neurology. And that is not by accident, because the basic truth of our existence is that it is one of becoming. This is the existential truth that is obscured by speaking about subjectivity and objectivity from a purely objective standpoint, for there is no becoming in objectivity. And it is the truth that provides the only genuine foundation of morality.

"Morality is a code of behavior that aspires to some goal that is perceived as good" Novella informs us. This is perfectly stated from the objective standpoint, but it will never result in an ethics that is subjectively compelling. For what does such a code have to do with me? At what point does the objective discussion of such a code end, or get to the point that I must stop debating it and start following it? Kierkegaard, in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, shows us that objective thought can never result in something that is subjectively compelling, precisely because the subject is removed at the outset. The only way to get the subject back in, that is, to make the results of objective thought subjectively compelling, is for the subject to reinsert himself through an act of the will; I must choose to apply the results of objective thought to my life, and that act of choice is beyond reason, for it is "subjective" in the modern (non-Kierkegaardian) sense. This is the real reason for the "fact-value distinction" in modern thought. 

Better, Kierkegaard tells us, is to never lose the subject in the first place. Rather than beginning with a fictitious objective origin to morality in facts about our feelings or evolution, which isn't really a beginning at all, a subjective origin may be found in the fact that I am becoming. This simply means that my being is not static but dynamic. Everyday I wake up I am a day older; every act I do or avoid doing changes me in some way. I am becoming something; the process is unavoidable, and the only question is what am I becoming.  

There is an analogous situation with dieting (or, rather, dieting is a response to the physical fact of becoming). I must eat to live, and what I eat determines what I become. Eat too much or the wrong things and I become fat; do not eat enough and I become weak and underweight. There are people who take a great deal of interest in what they eat and investigate various diet plans to achieve certain physical outcomes, and others who take no interest at all. But whether one takes an interest in diet or not, the existential fact of "becoming what you eat" remains nonetheless, and existence forces one to deal with food one way or the other. There is no mystery, then, in the origin of dieting. I don't need to look for an evolutionary explanation concerning our feelings about food, about what I care and don't care about. I need only recognize that eating is a fact of life, my life, and the only question is whether I will eat well or poorly. A response to food (which is what dieting is) is inevitable given the nature of our existence.

The point may be made general. Life forces me to act, and my actions change me in one way or another, and the only question is whether I will act well or badly, i.e. what will I become through my actions? Note that I become something through eating whether or not I take an interest in what I become. The man who is not interested in dieting and eats nothing but coke and chips all day will get fat and ruin his health; he is not exempted from the consequences of his eating simply because he does not acknowledge that eating has consequences. Similarly, I become something or other through my actions in general, and those consequences follow whether or not I acknowledge them. Ethics is my response to the fact of becoming, just as dieting is my response to the fact of eating.

One criticism of Kierkegaard is that in works like the Concluding Unscientific Postscript he spends very little time debating what most moderns consider the important ethical questions: Rules of behavior and how to tell right actions from wrong ones. This is because, contra our modern view, the answers to those questions are really the easiest part of ethics; they only seem hard to us because we have lost the true starting point for ethics in subjectivity. This becomes apparent when we are brought to a point of approaching ethics subjectively (despite ourselves) through art.

An example of this is the film It's A Wonderful Life, which I explore in detail here. At each critical moment in his life, George is faced with a choice between fulfilling his own ambitions or sacrificing those ambitions for the sake of others. At each point, he denies himself and does what we all know is the right thing to do, sacrificing his own ambitions for the sake of others. The film works because the filmmaker can count on the fact that his audience knows what the right thing to do is in each successive dilemma; the drama is found in whether George can meet the ethical challenge, not whether the ethical challenge can meet some inappropriate "objective" standard of ethics. 

And it is not an accident that Hollywood tends to make films with a pro-life message (e.g. Knocked Up) despite its leftwing political bent. For a film is a story, and therefore a story of becoming, and therefore a story of becoming good (at least if it is a comedy rather than a tragedy). Knocked Up wouldn't work if Seth Rogen abandoned Katherine Heigl, for whatever "objective" reasons he might offer, because we know it is the wrong thing to do and Rogen would just be rationalizing. Similarly, Katherine Heigl can't get an abortion, because the audience, whether or not they are politically pro-choice, cannot but admire a woman has the child more than one that aborts it.

We can agree with Novella that morals can only be understood in the context of the moral actor. But that context must start in subjectivity, not end there.