If we put aside the self-awareness standard—and really, how arbitrary and arrogant is that, to take the attribute of consciousness we happen to possess over all creatures and set it atop the hierarchy, proclaiming it the very definition of consciousness (Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote something wise in his notebooks, to the effect of: only a man can draw a self-portrait, but only a man wants to)—it becomes possible to say at least the following: the overwhelming tendency of all this scientific work, of its results, has been toward more consciousness. More species having it, and species having more of it than assumed. This was made boldly clear when the “Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness” pointed out that those “neurological substrates” necessary for consciousness (whatever “consciousness” is) belong to “all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses.” The animal kingdom is symphonic with mental activity, and of its millions of wavelengths, we’re born able to understand the minutest sliver. The least we can do is have a proper respect for our ignorance.
calvin and hobbes
Gray has been labelled as a cantankerous-doomsday-know-all in many intellectual circles. His critics point out that while he does not subscribe to any dogmatic ideology per se, he contends that history is essentially a series of accidents, with no trajectory as such. Human beings, in Gray’s worldview, can never really progress beyond their primordial, animalistic, selfish instincts, particularly when factors beyond their control make them more fearful. The central argument in most of his books refutes the idea – that has been put forward by ideologues on both the left and the right – that history is a series of stages that will incrementally lead to a better outcome for humanity.
As Gray sees it this optimism is simply giving people false hope. There has been no utopian society as Marx or Lenin foresaw; nor has the neo-conservative doctrine of universal American global capitalism, as envisioned by Francis Fukuyama in his book The End of History, come about. The progressive rationalist society that atheists like Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker predict is on the way, once we all stop believing in God and discover the true merits of science, is, for Gray, yet another illusion.
Progressive-minded people predictably tend to interpret this as nihilism. But it’s not that nothing ever changes, or that nothing is ever worth doing, it’s just that even beneficial changes tend to quickly become the status quo, which no one is ever content with, seemingly as a psychological rule. It’s closer to what Theodore Dalrymple called “existential pessimism“. Anyone who’s lived to adulthood should have experienced this. As an adolescent, I used to imagine that being a musician would be the ultimate dream job, but it was impossible to ignore that the seeming-awesomeness of what I imagined it to be didn’t square with the fact that many people who were actually living the life were still confused, miserable and self-destructive. Every consumer product that provided me with the thrills of anticipation and novelty quickly became taken for granted. My life is, in many respects, much improved over the last couple of years alone, but I still fret about the bills, lose my temper over annoyances, and intuitively feel like things overall are pretty evenly split between enjoyable and problematic. We don’t exist in gratitude for everything we have; we acknowledge it when prompted and quickly get back to business.
As with individuals, so with societies. I’m sure that if progressive activists got even half of what they’re currently agitating for, people would still be complaining like this soon thereafter:
Aristotle first identified the problem. Suppose your life is made up of things you do for the sake of something else — you do A in order to get B, and you do B only to get C, and so on. Therefore A has no value in itself; its value lies in the B. But B has no value in itself: that value lies in the C. Perhaps we eventually encounter something — call it Z — that’s valuable for what it is in itself, and not for anything else. The grim alternative is that we encounter no such thing and satisfaction is always deferred, always just around the corner (indeed many would argue that this is the treadmill of consumerism). If our lives are to mean anything, there must be something that’s valuable for what it is in itself and not for anything else it might get you. This, in the parlance of philosophers, is called intrinsic value. Most obviously, we should be able to find intrinsic value in the other people in our lives. If we focus just on our activities — on what we do — then it is clear that it will not be found in work (in my sense above, of things we do for something else) but only in play. It is play, and not work, that gives value to our lives.
Alan Watts talked about this sort of thing a lot:
When we make music we don’t do it in order to reach a certain point, such as the end of the composition. If that were the purpose of music then obviously the fastest players would be the best. Also, when we are dancing we are not aiming to arrive at a particular place on the floor as in a journey. When we dance, the journey itself is the point, as when we play music, the playing itself is the point.
I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that woods-moseying was my “purpose” in life. Of course, I could just as easily have named reading, blogging, watching soccer games or listening to music, too. Am I suggesting that everyone should be similarly lacking in worldly ambition? No, I’m saying that there is no “should” to begin with, no categorical imperative, no final destination toward which all our efforts are aimed. I’m saying that my conception of the good life involves activities which exist simply for their own sake, as reflecting pools, pools in which such progressivist, teleological delusions of ultimate purpose can drown.
Two of the experiments involved humor. In one, 29 European Americans and 26 East Asians wrote about either death or dental pain, then read a series of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips and rated how funny they found them.
East Asians who had been contemplating their own mortality found the strips funnier than those who had been thinking about dental pain. The reverse was true of Westerners.
Clearly, something was wrong with the methodology, because the absolute, unrivaled hee-larity of Calvin and Hobbes transcends both nationality and uncomfortable circumstances. I mean, that’s just a scientific fact.
I’ve said many times over the years, to any who would listen, that Bill Watterson’s comic strip Calvin & Hobbes is one of the keystones of my intellectual development. And I’ve put idiots on notice that I will not stand by passively while they desecrate Calvin’s sacred image in service of NASCAR and bible-thumping.
But after seeing yet another rear-window decal today, I’ve decided it’s time to take the fight to the enemy on their own turf. I’m going to get both a “Pissing Calvin” and a “Praying Calvin” sticker and use an x-acto knife to creatively combine the two in a more accurate reflection of the strip’s iconoclastic spirit. A variation on Serrano’s Piss Christ, if you will. Honestly, I’m ashamed it took me this long to think of it.
Many “why” questions are really “how” questions in disguise. For instance, if you ask: “Why does water boil at 100C?” what you are really asking is: “What are the processes that explain it has this boiling point?” – which is a question of how.Critically, however, scientific “why” questions do not imply any agency – deliberate action – and hence no intention. We can ask why the dinosaurs died out, why smoking causes cancer and so on without implying any intentions. In the theistic context, however, “why” is usually what I call “agency-why”: it’s an explanation involving causation with intention.So not only do the hows and whys get mixed up, religion can end up smuggling in a non-scientific agency-why where it doesn’t belong.This means that if someone asks why things are as they are, what their meaning and purpose is, and puts God in the answer, they are almost inevitably going to make an at least implicit claim about the how: God has set things up in some way, or intervened in some way, to make sure that purpose is achieved or meaning realised. The neat division between scientific “how” and religious “why” questions therefore turns out to be unsustainable.…But for the moment, we can say that any religious belief that involves an activist, really-existing God and claims that religion has something to say about why things happen, must also be encroaching on questions of how they happen, too. And if that’s true, the easy peace which many claim should exist between science and religion just isn’t possible.
This would be a typical response from the atheist scientist who is not spiritual when I ask, “So how do you answer questions that have to do with the meaning of life, big questions such as why are we here, what’s the purpose of my life?” They would answer, “I don’t think those are important questions to be asking.” Those questions just don’t matter. It wasn’t that they had an answer that was different from the general public. They just didn’t think those were important questions. Now, the atheist scientists who are spiritual would give answers to those questions, and they would give them through the sense of being spiritual. They would talk about how they found awe and beauty in nature, they found awe in the birth of their children, they found awe in the very work that they do as scientists. They just couldn’t see that as being explained only by science—there has to be something else out there beyond themselves. But then they did not see that as being God, or needing to name it as theism of any sort.So what should people take away from your study?Many of these scientists who are atheists are not hostile to big questions of the meaning of life. I thought there would be scientists who were religious. I thought there would be probably a lot fewer scientists who were religious than people in the general public who are religious. None of those findings were surprising. But this spiritual atheist finding has really been surprising to me personally.
I thought I had seen it all when it came to unconscionable desecration of the image of Calvin (from Calvin & Hobbes). Even though Bill Watterson never made his work available for merchandising, you still see stickers and window decals of Calvin being used to symbolize contempt for various NASCAR drivers via a stream of urine and an evil smirk, or as a religious simpleton kneeling in prayer before a cross. There is no end to the number of treasures these cretins will defile with their filthy hands.
The problem for the librarian, no less than for the career consultant, the occupational health and safety supervisor, and the beleaguered investment banker, is that the notion of a “work-life balance” is a terrible false dichotomy, the Marxist equivalent of giving all your chips away before the deck is even shuffled and then borrowing from the dealer to buy a round for the table. It is manifestly impossible to divide one’s life into neat or even approximately spherical compartments (how many New York Times crossword puzzles have been completed with a “Eureka!” exclaimed while on the family dog’s midnight promenade), and the decision to deny the obvious is generally employed by those who actually know better, which is why they are forever unsatisfied with the level of the scales. While it is plainly true that one can read a book more or less closely (substitute a beach blanket and a daiquiri for a pencil and a desk), it is equally true that something of everything we read is retained, to be recalled, by chance more often than design, on some or another future occasion, a dinner conversation, a tutorial essay, or a game of Trivial Pursuit. As every student who has written an examination knows all too well, it is impossible to predict when the most felicitous recollections – legend has it, the essential ingredients in the making of a “Congratulatory First” – will occur, but the chances are most assuredly increased in direct proportion to the number of books we read.Even, just for pleasure.
Calvin: Why do you suppose we’re here?Hobbes: Because we walked here.Calvin: No, no. I mean here on Earth.Hobbes: Because Earth can support life.Calvin: No, I mean why are we anywhere? Why do we exist?Hobbes: Because we were born.Calvin: Forget it.Hobbes: I will, thank you.
The classical philosophical tradition gives us an adage that is still hard to improve upon: ex nihilo nihil fit (from nothing comes nothing). Any teacher worth his salt would take a student to task if, in trying to explain why and how a given phenomenon occurred, the student were to say, “well, it just spontaneously happened.” Yet we are expected to be satisfied with precisely that explanation when it comes to the most pressing and fascinating question of all: why is there something rather than nothing?
You and I are contingent in the measure that we had parents, that we eat and drink, and that we breathe. In a word, we don’t explain ourselves. Now if we want to understand why we exist, we cannot go on endlessly appealing to other contingent things. We must come finally to some reality which exists through the power of its own essence, some power whose very nature it is to be.But that whose very nature it is to be cannot, in any sense, be limited or imperfect in being, and this is precisely why Catholic philosophy has identified this non-contingent ground of contingency, this ultimate explanation of the being of the universe, as “God.”