Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Values (and their absence) in modern thought

A common modern debate invariably begins with the view that 'science shows the Universe has no purpose'. That is of course a rather simplistic way of putting it, but the point remains that many who subscribe to what they would consider 'a scientific worldview' express this idea often. 

Take this snippet of dialogue from a Forum exchange:


(Me) I think the most basic philosophical question of all is 'why are we here?' Many will regard it as a meaningless question, others will already have worked out an answer to it. But two points I want to make are, first, the fact that we can ask this question is significant, because (to our knowledge) no other 'product of evolution' can do so. We are self-conscious, and aware that we live and will die. In this sense, we represent a unique point in the process of evolution: the point of self-awareness. We represent, if you like, where the whole process of evolution has become aware of itself.
So to ask this question is to wonder whether existence has any purpose. Is it solely what I make it? Is it to get rich quick? Is it to serve mankind? Do we live our threescore years and ten, and then vanish into eternal blackness?   And so on. These are all deep questions, with many possible answers. But this is not the question that the theory of evolution ever set out to answer.  So the fact of physical evolution does not really have anything to do with this question. But the fact that evolutionary biology doesn't ask, or answer, this question, ought not to be taken to mean that there isn't an answer, or that the question is not a serious question. And I think that is what is happening all the time in the background of this debate. I think that evolutionary scientists tend to belittle or dismiss any such questioning, because it is out of scope for the discipline. Then, this dismissal becomes a philosophical viewpoint in its own right: the viewpoint that whether there is purpose is not even a question.
(Responder) Evolution can in fact answer the question "Why are we here?":  to propagate as much of our genetic material as possible into the next generation.  Not very existentially satisfying, perhaps, but that is all evolution "cares" about.  Evolution doesn't preclude intelligent agents from devising their own goals and purposes -  it's just that such purpose and goals are not inherent to the evolutionary process.
Notice that the response actually affirms the very point I was making -  but without even understanding or acknowledging it! 'The evolutionary process' is, as an axiom, unintentional, undirected and blind. The fact that human intentions arise from that - are caused by it, in effect - introduces a dichotomy or division between (intentional) man and (unintelligent) nature. We can have our own aims, but because they don't reflect or correspond to anything in reality, they are subjective or at best social; they are not connected to anything in a greater reality.  That is the predicament of the materialistic mentality.  

Existentialist philosophers, like Camus, Sartre, Dostoevski, Nietszche and Kafka, all grasped the absurdity of this predicament and wrote books about it. But our apparently sophisticated modern thinkers don't even see it!  'To be, or not to be: what was the question?'  They may be 'scientifically literate'  - but they are essentially oafs. This also comes across in their insistence that people are animals (another axiom of theirs). In their view, life has no purpose other than 'my' goals and 'my' intentions; while this can be expanded to include social and civic aims there is no purpose beyond purposes that can be enacted in one's existence, or for the benefit of posterity; but nothing is transcendently or intrinsically good, or really simply 'good' in its own right and for its own sake. 

Goddess Prajnaparamita
Real Values

In contrast to relativism and subjectivism, the aim of a true philosophical spirituality is knowledge which is intrinsically good; it is to understand something, the very understanding of which is beneficial. The understanding itself becomes the aim; just to understand it is to be liberated by it, to the extent that you understand it. That is the nature of Prajñāpāramitā, supreme transcendent wisdom, in Buddhist philosophy (depicted iconographically at right.)

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