In his debate on whether God is necessary for morality, Christian philosopher William Lane Craig argues that for the naturalistic atheist, human life must ultimately be insignificant, because in the end the natural universe would destroy itself and all living things would die. Thus, morality must be illusory and so that atheist should be prudent rather than altruistic. By contrast, theism implies that human life and morality are fundamental to the real world, since they would depend on God, and the spirits of moral individuals would be united with God for eternity. Craig’s opponent, Yale philosopher Shelly Kagan, retorts that the question of whether our life is cosmically or ultimately important is irrelevant. Our values and duties can be objectively meaningful, he says, even if we’re not important in the grand scheme of things. Kagan asks Craig why we should think that objective meaning must be on a cosmic scale if it’s to amount to anything at all. Even if in the end everything winds up being the same, say in the heat death of the universe, both the atoms that produced Hitler and Gandhi, what we do on our way to that final destination can have real, if limited importance—and Kagan adds that this importance needn’t be merely subjective or illusory. The importance of our choices and experiences can be real even if that importance isn’t cosmic or everlasting; moreover, the reasons to be moral can be objective even if those reasons won’t affect the outcome of the entire universe. Kagan says that if you save a human life, the moral significance of that action isn’t diminished one iota by the fact that our sun will eventually explode and destroy our planet. (See the beginning of Kagan’s interrogation of Craig, starting at around 53:20 in the YouTube video of their debate).
As usual, Craig tries to reduce naturalistic atheism to its most extreme form. He thinks atheism implies nihilism or at least subversive existentialism, but because Craig’s only using the dark atheistic argument about our status in the cosmic scale as a means to his Christian end, he doesn’t seem to understand this argument and so he doesn’t deal effectively with Kagan’s objection. At one point, Craig says in exasperation that he just doesn’t understand why Kagan can’t see that all our deeds become trivial in light of the cosmic doom that awaits us all (see 1 hour and 15 min. into the debate). Now, I actually agree with Craig and disagree with Kagan regarding the question of whether we should be concerned about our cosmic insignificance. We should be so concerned. I also disagree with Craig, though, because I think atheistic morality becomes worthy precisely when that morality deals well with our cosmic insignificance.
The Relevance of Our Cosmic Irrelevance
Here’s how Craig should have explained to Kagan the relevance of our cosmic doom. For the naturalistic atheist, there’s a conflict between natural and social processes. Metaphysically, she thinks all processes are natural, of course, but in our daily lives we prefer to live in society, not in the wilderness. Scientists want to understand how nature works so that we can prevent nature from intruding on society. We want to predict or control the weather, to tame or eliminate wild animals, to combat diseases, and so on. We prefer our artificial, social worlds made up of human relationships and technological luxuries, because we matter in those human-made bubbles. In fact, in society we’re of central importance; everything in society points to us, because society is filled with artifacts whose functions are designed by people to serve people. Perhaps we’ve always been vainly anthropocentric for as long as we’ve been self-aware, and we satisfy our infantile urge to be at the center of the universe, by building our artificial worlds within the natural world.
But we tend not to lose ourselves completely in our fictions. Once we see there’s this conflict between society and nature, we can ask ourselves what the wild part of the world is up to. And what naturalists have learned is that what seems wild to us is just a byproduct of nature’s impersonality. Nature is mindless and set on its own course and all of human history is a sideshow by comparison. Nature is busy, to be sure, creating and destroying itself, proceeding inexorably to some final equilibrium in which life probably has no role at all.
There are three main reasons why this conflict between the human-centered world and the rest of the universe should trouble us. First, the fact that nature is in the process of doing its own thing makes us dupes in that we unwittingly serve nature’s inhumane agenda. It’s as if we’ve all been kidnapped by superpowerful aliens who let us appear to live out our lives even though our society is just a laboratory for them to study us to fulfill their nonhuman purpose. We may find meaning in our life and take pleasure in this or that event, but the fact that there are two worlds, one of which trumps the other, means that the smaller world becomes absurd and ridiculous by comparison. How so? Because when we think objectively, we detach from our personal preferences, think outside the box of social conventions, and look at how the human-centered world relates to nature as a whole. From that wider perspective, the rules of our human games appear self-contained, fragile, and misleading. All games appear ridiculous to the spectator who doesn’t identify with the players.
Think how an alien would interpret golf or baseball or indeed how we would interpret an alien’s queer pastimes. As long as we’d remain detached from the alien culture, we’d look down on the aliens, just as Western anthropologists actually looked down on newly-discovered tribal societies. It wasn’t just that those societies were less powerful than the Europeans. Precisely because the anthropologists were relatively objective about those societies, the foreigners’ preoccupations were of no concern to the scientists and so their rituals, celebrations, and so on were perceived as meaningless. But because those foreign cultures were nevertheless elaborate and apparently fruitless, they also seemed embarrassingly wrongheaded. This happened to be because those cultures were invariably theistic and thus otherworldly. So when a person was sacrificed to the blood god, that cultural practice was objectively anticlimactic, since there was no such god and thus no real point to the sacrifice, however ironically elaborate the rituals may have been. Mind you, objectivity undermines all culture in a similar way, because objectivity puts us in touch with the world of objects in which meaning and value are irrelevant, which is why the notion of “objective importance” is an oxymoron. Objectively, which is to say, from nature’s viewpoint, as it were, nothing is important because nature isn’t alive and thus natural forces and elements can deem nothing as worthwhile. Natural processes flow as undead evolutions and complexifications. And when we put ourselves in an objective frame of mind, we detach from the side of ourselves that assigns things meaning and worth; we ignore our desires and our tastes and consider the bare facts, which the naturalistic atheist thinks define fundamental reality. For the naturalist, mindless, material objects are fundamental, not social obligations or cultural importance.
Second, then, the more we think objectively, the more detached we become from our parochial concerns, this being the opposite of the “going native” process. When the anthropologist goes native, she switches her allegiance from one culture to another, so that whereas she might have once found a foreign culture to be bizarre, she comes to feel more comfortable with that other lifestyle and outlook. The existentialist points to an inverse process of going nowhere. The curse of reason is that we all have the capacity to go nowhere, to think in a relatively detached and neutral way, even if we rush back to our more pleasant, anthropocentric perspective. When we think objectively of the facts, we become as cold and calculating as any natural mechanism. We strip off our humanity and observe the plain facts. We recognize that the real world isn’t beautiful, contrary to the mathematician’s or physicist’s frivolous evaluations, nor is that world humane or friendly. Objects merely are as they are and instead of interacting at a psychological or social level, they causally affect each other and are forced to change.
Granted, emergent levels of nature may be as real as the lower levels, but there’s still the danger that the more we consider the lower ones, the more we’ll dehumanize ourselves. Kagan brushes this worry off by saying this dehumanization would be just an empirical aberration, just as some theists will miss the point of the theistic ideal, by believing in God just so they can go to heaven. But Kagan is mistaken; the curse of reason is more like a destiny than an anomaly. We all have the potential for abstract thought, and language, empathy, and other factors drive us to step outside of our social cocoons now and again, to switch perspectives and finally to imagine how we must seem from the objective person’s view from nowhere. This was the famous plight of Sherlock Holmes: his superhuman ability to understand the cold, hard facts alienated him from society; he became infected by nature’s impersonality, as it were, because he identified with nature’s antisocial view from nowhere and it was just reason that drove him there.
Thirdly, although the end of the universe doesn’t directly affect us here and now, that horrible endgame does indirectly affect us, because the end of nature is part of the long natural process which is going on right now under our feet and which reaches into our social bubbles in countless ways, popping them before we rush to reinflate them. That’s just to speak of the conflict again between society and the wilderness. The wild forces of nature and every natural turn of events are harbingers of life’s cosmic insignificance, because they’re part of the natural world which is ultimately opposed to life. Granted, nature can’t be entirely so opposed, since life evolved within the natural domain. The sun is a natural object and it makes life possible. The cosmos creates life in some of its pockets here and there, but because nature is generally undead rather than living or inert, organisms inevitably come into conflict with their maker. Once created, living things become preoccupied with their survival, greedily demanding more and more security, evolving more and more self-defense mechanisms, so that every sign of nature’s underlying indifference to the life it created makes for a rude awakening. Whether it’s the finitude of our bodies, the fragility of our ecosystems, the frugality of the environment, or the brutality of the life cycle, we organisms prefer to take up our perspectives, to think subjectively as fish, lizards, birds, or mammals, and to cope as best we can with the fact that the world’s mindlessness impinges on us in countless ways, often, if not always, to our detriment. Sometimes we’re lucky, as nature’s indifference expresses itself in some accidental benefit to a critter, but in the end, good luck, like life in general, is temporary. The universe is ultimately opposed to life, not just because life won’t be present in the universe’s endgame, but because that final lifelessness indicates the underlying meaninglessness of everything in the universe, from the objective view from nowhere.
Is Atheistic Morality a Delusion?
Let’s look closer at some relevant points from the Craig-Kagan debate. Craig says that for an atheist, when a prison guard tortures a prisoner, that event is of no ultimate or objective importance, however much the torture may matter subjectively to the victim. It’s important to analyze the key terms here. Again, the issue of objective importance is a red herring. “Objective” means reality- or fact-based, as opposed to expressing an idiosyncrasy. For the naturalist, the real world beyond the inner and social worlds of subjects is material, and of course material things as such are neither important nor unimportant, because matter is understood scientifically, not morally or theologically, and scientific theories don’t posit values or meanings. Moreover, so-called objective meaning for the monotheist derives from God who would be a subject rather than an object.
So the deeper issue is whether moral values are of ultimate importance. Although Kagan answers the point about the torturer by saying that that suffering matters to the victims and to his or her family, he’s explicit that he means the immorality in question isn’t merely subjective or illusory even though human morality may be irrelevant to the cosmos as a whole. That is, Kagan says the question of our ultimate importance should itself be unimportant to us. I agree that that question shouldn’t matter to us if we want to be happy, because in that case we should stop asking questions and should focus on nonphilosophical issues of daily living. But reason sets that question before those who are cursed to think too much. Again, we can set aside the strawman worry that the lifelessness at the end of the universe somehow directly makes our present lives unimportant. No, the existential concern is that the universe’s end state indicates certain indifference on the part of all natural processes which lead up to that end state by way of their causal connections and inherent natures.
But let’s confront Kagan’s question which befuddled Craig: why must our real importance as sentient creatures be either ultimate or nothing at all? In other words, why can’t real importance, meaning, or value come in degrees? The objection here is that Craig’s argument against nontheistic morality rests on a false dichotomy between (A) the cosmic importance of morality, which is precluded by naturalistic atheism, and (B) sheer nihilism given the horror of appreciating the lack of any such ultimate meaning. Now, I agree with Kagan that Craig’s argument does assume a false dichotomy. A naturalistic atheist who appreciates our existential predicament and who feels the horror in question needn’t think all values are illusory, although she will likely defend the subjectivity of values. Nietzsche, for example, was one such atheist who was an existentialist but not a nihilist. I’m another such atheist. Many new atheists likewise aren’t nihilists, although they tend not to dwell on the existential implications of their metaphysical naturalism.
Can real worth come in degrees, though? For example, can the immorality of the torture of an innocent person be real if that event is morally neutral along with everything else, from the rational view from nowhere? We should grant, with Craig, the reality of subjective meaning and value. Clearly, the torture would matter to certain individuals, but although their feelings would be real, the subjective badness of the torture would be an expression of those feelings. As for the fact of the torture itself, as an objective part of the natural universe, again the question is rather loaded against the moralist since the notion of a moral fact is another oxymoron. Values require subjects. Still, some aspects of values may be objective. For example, the undeadness of nature carries the potential to horrify rational creatures, just as the universe’s lifeless destiny is potentially tragic, meaning that rational creatures would interpret that pattern more likely as tragic than as comedic. In any case, we need to distinguish between the reality that some people condemn the torture and the reality of the torture’s badness. What is it about the real world that would make the torture wrong, given naturalistic atheism? In the debate, Kagan says it’s the social contract, which obliges all rational beings who live together to agree to certain rules that make society feasible. The problem with social contract theory, though, is that perfectly rational beings would be forced to consider the natural differences between people, as opposed to abstracting from those differences and treating everyone as equal. So more powerful people would have less reason to take the contract seriously than would weaker folks who would more likely rely on its laws.
The Ethics of Existential Cosmicism
My view is that moral values are real in so far as they reckon with our existential predicament; otherwise, they’re delusory. Torturing an innocent person would be bad in so far as that victim can be pitied for its having been her turn to pay for the universe’s overall indifference to life. In other words, with the existential perspective in mind, and thus with an acknowledgement of the cosmic absurdity which Kagan wrongly thinks is irrelevant to morality, we can understand the reality of moral values. Torture is wrong not just because we happen to oppose it, but because the supreme philosophy/religion, of which my existential cosmicism is just an inkling, would likely posit that while nature, the undead god, is mindless, it’s also inherently monstrous. Everything in nature is already horrible unless it’s transmuted by ascetic rebellion or detachment which necessarily takes into account our existential plight. That plight is that we have the potential to be heroic if we step out of our comfort zone, recognize the horrors of what and of where we are, and manage to creatively overcome them. Scientifically, there’s no such horror, nor any beauty or ugliness in nature, but science is methodologically naturalistic, and philosophical naturalism has existential implications. Were there no life in the world, nature would still be a monstrous god, self-evolving and complexifying like a zombie that shouldn’t be able to move as if it were alive, but which does just that. To be sure, there would be no one to feel the horror in response to that undeadness, but the potential for that horror would remain.
This is the objective basis of existential values. These values (e.g. courage, pity, originality, detachment/objectivity, ironic reversal) are creative responses to the confrontation with natural reality, and so the values do justice to the underlying facts as well as living up to the aesthetic ideal of avoiding conformity (cliché). You might be wondering why we should care about the aesthetic ideal. Well, creativity in the service of an ascetic rebellion against nature’s indifference to us has the benefit of ironically mirroring nature’s undead creativity; moreover, there’s a fact of the matter as to whether some thought or action is creative. In theory, creativity could even be quantified, by contrasting something’s novelty with an average. But are creativity and existential rebellion really valuable or just subjectively so? The former, since these values don’t merely express our feelings; rather, they’re part of a posthuman process that begins with the shedding of delusions and with the confrontation with natural horrors, and that ends by producing godlike creativity in us. The rightness of existential/aesthetic values is real in that it’s fact-based; nature is objectively horrible in its monstrous mimicry of a living creator, and when we face up to that fact and deal heroically with it, by reversing nature’s monstrous course as far as we can, we paint our masterpiece over the ugliness of nature’s decay.