Wednesday, December 14, 2016

How do you vote?

Frederick Buechner, in his marvelous Secrets in the Dark, recounts a few incidents of the kind Christians like: he receives strange encouragement in a time of stress; an odd phenomenon occurs after a departed friend appears in a dream—this sort of thing. Then he asks us how we would vote on the second most important philosophical question:
On Yes, there is God in the highest, or, if such language is no longer viable, there is Mystery and Meaning in the deepest? On No, there is whatever happens to happen, and it means whatever you choose it to mean, and that is all there is?
Buechner, p. 171sq.
Actually he used the word “bet” (rather than “vote”) but he points out that we actually bet our lives.
We may bet Yes this evening and No tomorrow morning. We may know we are betting or we may not know. We may bet one way with our lips, our minds, our hearts even, and another way with our feet. But we all of us bet, and it’s our lives themselves we’re betting with in the sense that the betting is what shapes our lives. And we can never be sure we’ve bet right, of course. The evidence both ways is fragmentary, fragile, ambiguous. A coincidence can be, as somebody has said, God’s way of remaining anonymous, or it can be just a coincidence. Is the dream that brings healing and hope just a product of wishful thinking? Or is it a message from another world? Whether we bet Yes or No, it is equally an act of faith.
op. cit., p. 172
Indeed, it’s not that Yes takes faith and No takes only courage and reason; it takes just as much faith to vote No as Yes—I might argue it takes more. Bertrand Russell had a lot of faith to bet No, as he expressed in a famous essay:
Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; …
I confess mixed reactions to Russell’s view. On one side, if he’s right, then (as the Bible says) “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”; I can ignore my conscience and exploit anyone for any reason, or no reason …

But Kant says that’s not philosophically consistent, and Mill argues in the generalized version of utilitarianism that it’s a bad idea. Practically, one might feel the need to buy a lot of guns, because if everyone thought and acted that way, it would be like a Wild West sans law enforcement.

But I see two more big problems with Russell’s way of thinking. First, if someone sincerely holds those beliefs, and lives accordingly, what kind of life do they have? What kind of person do they become, if they think that your hopes and fears, your loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations…? A brief thought-experiment tells me that I don’t really want a life like that, and that I don’t want to be around anyone who lives that way either.

Another big problem is, as Lewis wrote, “If thought is the undesigned and irrelevant product of cerebral motions, what reason have we to trust it?” Indeed, Russell claims to be a random text generator, but I don’t actually believe him.

Back to the first question: how do you vote on Buechner’s question? Yes, there is some kind of real meaning in life? Or No, things just happen, and they mean whatever you choose them to mean?

No comments: