Try to talk to me about proofs for or against the existence of God and I’ll just yawn. Try to sell me arguments for or against free will, and I’ll reach for my phone to check my mail. Don’t even bother trying to lure me into a debate on the existence of objective moral values. I’m not interested.
Bear in mind that the first thing I do every morning is to thank God for “returning my soul”, so my lack of interest in such matters cannot be explained as the allergy of a practical man to matters of the spirit or a secular firebrand’s allergy to anything that smacks of religion. What is it then that bores me about certain Big Questions?
It’s tempting as a first guess to suggest that I just find these fundamental problems intractable and so quickly conclude that my time could be more usefully spent on more manageable affairs. But this seems inadequate. There are plenty of hard questions that do sometimes engage me – matters of public policy, science, finance and many others – that are not obviously more tractable than the ones that bore me.
No, it’s something else – in fact, something quite subtle that gets right to the heart of some very deep questions. Let’s start working our way to the answer by asking a simple question: why should I wish to know the truth about anything at all?
Practical people will waste no time at all reaching for a practical answer: ignorant people end up drinking gasoline or riding bicycles off cliffs. In short, I should seek knowledge that might help me achieve goals, foremost among which is staying alive.
Thus, I need to know what I can safely eat and which animals to stay away from. I need to know the consequences of an altercation between a pedestrian and a moving truck. I need to understand human nature well enough to make educated guesses about which overtures are likely to result in cooperation that could keep me alive and prosperous. I need to know how best to cooperate with other people and when it is better not to cooperate. I need to understand myself well enough to know what will give me satisfaction. I need to know whose authority I ought to respect. I need to know when to indulge my desires and when it is prudent to restrain them. I need to know why the sum of two positive integers to the third power can’t equal another integer to the third power.
Whoa! Why do I need to know that?!
The truth is that most of what we study in college is closer on the usefulness scale to Fermat’s Last Theorem than it is to the identification of poison mushrooms. Of course, I can easily come up with a few “just so” stories to explain the pursuit of theoretical knowledge. It might be the spillover effect of an evolved inclination to know more obviously useful things. Maybe I have reason to think that a particular kind of knowledge will earn me prestige that results in power and influence, although maybe that just kicks the can slightly down the road: why would that kind of knowledge earn me prestige? Maybe I have good reasons to believe that what is theoretical today will be practical tomorrow. In short, with enough effort I could make a reasonable case that even what looks like the love of knowledge for its own sake serves some other, second- or third-order need. But I think that hard-headed approach misses the main point.
At the very least, the kinds of people who think deeply about the existence of free will and objective moral values and God don’t think that we seek truth merely for prosaic utilitarian reasons. They (and I) think that the search for truth is embedded in a broader set of evolved human needs, which includes the desire to live what I’ll call a meaningful life.
What perplexes them is why someone like me, who agrees that we seek truth to live a meaningful life, is bored by certain questions that seem highly relevant to precisely that quest.
Here’s what I think is the answer: my thoughts (and theirs) on those questions just don’t matter. That’s because when we pursue knowledge for the purpose of living a meaningful life, a very potent premise underlies our quest: that we can pursue knowledge for the purpose of living a meaningful life. And, as we’ll soon see, this premise alone resolves each of the hard philosophical questions that bore me.
Let me illustrate the point with some low-hanging fruit. Do human beings have free will? That sounds like a hard question with lots of good arguments in each direction. In fact, most of the good arguments favor the view that we don’t have free will and we’ll briefly consider some of them below. But none of those arguments actually make a difference. If our premise is that “we can pursue…” – the rest of the sentence doesn’t even matter – we have already assumed that we can choose to act the way we do.
Let me take pains to emphasize that I’m not arguing that we have good reasons to conclude that we have free will. I’m claiming that the assumption that we have free will underlies our quest to know anything at all.
I will be arguing that the Big Questions that bore me (and maybe you as well) all share this quality with the question of free will: the very premise that I can pursue knowledge for the purpose of living a meaningful life forces me into a particular position on each of these questions. In other words, these questions cannot be resolved by my quest for knowledge, since they are already decided the moment I engage in the quest.
This is a pretty bold claim. So, let me consider a string of Big Questions and try to convince you that it is true.
Well, now that I’ve told you that making arguments for and against free will is pointless, let’s do exactly that – specifically, let’s make the case against free will. This is a bit of mis-direction designed to make the punchline – in which it is revealed that our arguments were indeed all for naught – that much more dazzling. Bear with me.
The claim that we have free will implies that, at least sometimes, we are faced with multiple options and that, at least sometimes, we freely choose among them for our own purposes. If either one of these implications is false, we don’t have free will.
Here is a reason to think that at least one of them is indeed false. Engineers can send a rocket to the moon, or to targets in another country, and know precisely where it will land. Chemists can combine different materials and know precisely what chemical reactions will follow. These processes are deterministic – that is, if we know certain relevant facts now, we can determine certain other facts that will hold later. It is tempting to conclude that this determinism holds in a much more general sense: if we’d know everything about the universe right now, we could theoretically determine everything about the universe later. (The word theoretically is important here. We might not know how to compute some future state of the universe from the current one, or it might require more computational resources than we have, but that doesn’t matter for purposes of my argument.)
If determinism holds in the sense I have just described, then we are never faced with multiple options; based on the previous state of the world, only one of these options is actually possible (even if we don’t know which option it is). Thus, we don’t have free will.
The obvious way out of this is to deny determinism. Truthfully, your best bet here is to just say that full-blown determinism is a wild over-generalization based on isolated examples of determinism in certain narrow areas, and to leave it at that. Because if you insist on getting more specific about pinpointing non-determinism, you’ll find that your defense of free will is rather thin.
For example, one way we can try to flag some source of non-determinism in the world is to wave our hands about quantum randomness something something. But, even if we could actually nail that argument down, it wouldn’t quite solve our problem. If the only non-deterministic events are random ones, then we are not choosing among options for our purposes but rather are merely acting randomly. So the attempt to save the first implication of free will – that we are faced with multiple options – seems to undercut the second implication – that we choose an option for our purposes rather than merely act in a random way. Either way, free will loses.
So, are you convinced? Some people are and some people aren’t. That makes for some wonderful debates over beer. But here’s the thing: even if you’re on the no-free-will team in the bar, you don’t act like you think you think there’s no free will. You will still feel that you are making choices. You will still make plans and execute them, as if you have the ability to do so. You will still speak of your desires, your preferences and your intentions, as if you really mean it. You will still hold others responsible for their actions, as if they had a choice.
That’s because, forgive me, you have no choice but to believe that you have free will and neither do I. Remember: we pursue knowledge for the purpose of living a meaningful life. And this very quest assumes that we do indeed have free will. We could not choose to pursue knowledge without being capable of choosing; nor could we direct our knowledge to living a meaningful life without being capable of choosing. Our very participation in the debate over free will is predicated on the assumption that we have it.
Let’s call the premise that we can pursue knowledge for the purpose of living a meaningful life the Fundamental Premise. I’m going to call the assumptions that underlie the Fundamental Premise beliefs. I’m going to call anything else we think is true about the questions addressed by those beliefs opinions.
Thus, for example, we all believe that we have free will, even if some of us also have the opinion, possibly even a strongly-held opinion, that we don’t have free will. So our beliefs and opinions might sometimes conflict. But, in almost every way that matters, our beliefs are more central to how we live our lives than are our opinions. We will think, speak and act in accordance with our beliefs, not our opinions. We might argue for our opinions in bull sessions, august public debates, in social media posts and in formal essays or academic articles, but then we’ll get back to real life and act just like everybody else.
So, to restate my thesis here, the very important philosophical questions that bore me are the very ones for which my opinions don’t actually matter because, whatever my opinions, I hold certain beliefs – the ones that underlie the Fundamental Premise that I can in fact seek truth for the purpose of living a meaningful life. More baldly stated, some philosophical discussions are boring because they can’t change my beliefs.
With that thought in mind, let’s move on to another implication of the Fundamental Premise. Suppose you look out your window now and see that it’s raining. You think to yourself “If I go out now, I’ll get soaked.” But then you’re suddenly put in mind of that class on skepticism in the Intro to Philosophy course you took long ago. Do you actually know that you’ll get wet at all? Maybe you’re only dreaming that it’s raining. Maybe your eyes are deceiving you. In fact, maybe your eyes have always been deceiving you and there is no connection between what you “see” and “reality”. Maybe your whole life is a dream. Maybe you’re actually starring in your very own version of the Truman show and even the rain is staged. Maybe rain used to consist of water, but starting today, it’s actually hydrogen peroxide. Maybe water used to make things wet, but that was then.
Well, all those weird possibilities seem rather unlikely, you say. But, first of all, bear in mind that your ideas about what is likely are based on your past experience and if all that experience was deceptive, so are your thoughts about likelihood. Moreover, even if these weird scenarios are merely possible, if not especially likely, it still means that you don’t actually know that you’ll get wet in the rain.
Assuredly, none of these thoughts are going to deter you from taking an umbrella as you head out into the rain. You trust your senses, you almost always know that you’re not dreaming, you never take seriously the possibility that you’re in the Truman show or the Matrix or that you’re a brain in a vat. In fact, you assume that well-established patterns of nature will continue to hold into the indefinite future. And the same goes for me.
How do we know? What basis do we have for this assumption? Well, you might argue that scientific induction has worked until now, so we have reason to expect that it will continue to work, but the circularity of that argument ought to be obvious. To appreciate this point, imagine asking an anti-inductivist, who holds that whatever was is exactly what will not be, what basis he has for believing that. If he’s clever, he’ll respond “well, it never worked until now.” Furthermore, there is more than one way to generalize a discernible pattern. Maybe the law is that the sun comes up in the east every day only so long as there are no flying cars in Jerusalem. Everything in our experience so far is consistent with this law.
And yet we all get up every day confidently expecting the floor to be there when we get out of bed and the sun to be inching its way up in the east. Clearly, we believe that whatever version of folk science we have in our heads is at least a crude guide to how the world works. In fact, I’m pretty certain that even the great Scottish philosopher David Hume, who first called attention to the difficulty of justifying scientific induction, didn’t put his hand on a lit stove just to see if fire still burns.
The explanation for all this is straightforward. If I’d entertain the idea that nature is unintelligible or that I can’t know anything about the present or the future on the basis of the past, everything I know would be upended and I wouldn’t be able to live any kind of coherent life. More specifically, the intelligibility of the world to human beings underlies the Fundamental Premise. I can’t seek truth for any purpose if I can never ascertain reliable knowledge about the world and I can’t achieve any purpose if I can’t make some predictions about the future. So whatever idiosyncratic opinions I might indulge about the intelligibility of the world, I have no choice but to believe that I have some ability to navigate it.
So far, I’ve discussed the easy cases, mainly for the purpose of hammering home my somewhat quirky version of the distinction between beliefs and opinions. Now let me try to persuade you of a few somewhat less obvious implications of the Fundamental Premise.
For my next trick, I want to argue that it follows from the Fundamental Premise that history – or at the very least, the history of our own society – is, in some sense, directed; one can discern in the development of a society a historical arc.
This is so because to speak of a meaningful life, I must be embedded in some society that gives meaning to what I do in life and that will continue even after I die. So, not only does my sense of self persist through my lifetime, it in fact projects out into the future. Whatever projects I undertake or participate in – personal, communal, academic, commercial, national – have meaning for me or for others only because they contribute to human endeavors that include other people and extend beyond the here and now. Simply put, it is an underlying assumption of the Fundamental Premise that my actions matter – not just momentarily, but in the longer term.
To appreciate this point, imagine that, as a result of some natural disaster, all human beings have become sterile. Once those alive today live out their lives, the human race will end. This scenario, contemplated by the writer P. D. James in her novel The Children of Men, is the basis of a thought experiment considered by the philosopher Samuel Scheffler.
Scheffler’s persuasive “afterlife conjecture” is that the knowledge that the human race has no long-term future would already suck all the life out of us. Clearly, we’d no longer see any point in engaging in activities, like long-term research projects, infrastructure development, reform of public institutions, or international diplomacy, that are meant to pay off only in the distant future. But, Scheffler asserts quite plausibly, we would actually lose our taste even for activities that ostensibly give us pleasure in the here and now, like the consumption of music, art, food, and sex. That is because our pleasure from these activities depends on their embeddedness in our lives as wholes, and more broadly on our lives’ embeddedness in ongoing human history. In short, even for those of us who are childless, the value we ascribe to the things we do assumes that we are each links in some ongoing chain of human life.
It thus follows from the Fundamental Premise – specifically, from the possibility of living a meaningful life – that I must believe in the viability and potential for continued development at least of the society of which I am a part. In particular, I must believe that my society is engaged in some ongoing project that connects that which has preceded us with that which will succeed us and that gives meaning to the things we do.
Objective Moral Truths
The arguments against the existence of objective moral values are easy to lay out. I’m confident that it is an objective fact that elephants are larger than mice because I’ve experienced this many times with my own eyes and my experience has been confirmed by reports from everyone else who has weighed in on the matter. I’m quite certain that 13*7=91 not just subjectively, because I have done the calculation.
Now, compare this with moral claims. Our moral views seem to depend on the culture we belong to; they vary widely even among individuals in the same culture; they are usually vague even for a given individual. This suggests that the primary method we have of divining moral truths, namely our intuition, is not very reliable. It’s plausible that that’s because there is no objective moral truth out there to intuit. In fact, maybe what sound like moral claims ought to be interpreted as merely emotive (hurrah for charity, boo to child abuse) or imperative (give charity, don’t beat children), rather than as claims about the world.
But nobody actually believes that. Even the philosophers most strongly opposed to moral realism don’t hesitate to express moral opinions, usually regarding political matters, as if they take them quite seriously. When we say that charity is good and child abuse is bad, we mean exactly that and we mean it sincerely. We believe these claims as strongly as we believe that elephants are bigger than mice.
And why is that? Because the assumption of the Fundamental Premise that we can strive to live a meaningful life itself assumes that some ways of living are more meaningful than others. But this means that some ways of living are objectively better than others, and not merely in an instrumental or subjective way. More concretely, we necessarily regard activities that sustain the social projects that give our lives meaning as morally better than activities that hinder them. And, conversely, the social projects that give our lives meaning and by which we measure our society’s progress must be ones that we already regard as morally worthy. That’s why whatever our opinions about moral realism, we believe that some choices really are morally superior to others.
This brings me to the last of the beliefs that, I claim, follow from the Fundamental Premise – belief in the existence of God. There are good reasons not to be of the opinion that God exists. The whole idea sounds spooky, weird and pointless; in fact, it’s not even sufficiently well-defined to argue about.
But these objections suggest that the real challenge here is to figure out what people mean – in concrete and well-understood terms – when they say they believe in God. That is, we should not be talking in abstract terms about God’s existence, regarding which there is not much of value that we can say, but rather about God’s manifestation in the world in ways we can experience.
Watch this sleight of hand. We have already seen that we are compelled to believe each of the following:
1. the world is intelligible to us;
2. there are objective moral truths accessible to us;
3. we are free to choose to live by these moral truths;
4. our societies progress in accordance with these truths.
I’m going to call a world in which all these compelled beliefs hold a world in which God is manifest – but you might prefer to call it something else. If you buy my terminology, it follows that even atheists – who hold the opinion that God does not exist – must believe that God is manifest in our world.
We hold opinions that we don’t actually believe – and our behavior often gives us away. Some of these are about politics or human nature or our own abilities and preferences, but many – the ones that concern me here – are about Big Questions.
I realize that my arguments regarding the gap between our beliefs and opinions on the various Big Questions I considered here are not all equally convincing. Perhaps you weren’t persuaded by some of them. Never mind, that’s not the point. What is crucial is that there are some Big Questions contemplation of which just doesn’t matter: particular answers to these questions are the foundation of any quest for truth and not its product. Contemplation of these questions can only shift our opinions around, but those opinions don’t count for much in the face of our inescapable beliefs regarding such matters.
Among the many questions that these beliefs do not resolve is what specifically constitutes a meaningful life. Now that is an interesting question.