An idea which devastated many of my previous assumptions has implications for important views many of us hold. It also indicates the underlying basis of this blog itself.
Investigating what is right or wrong often leads one into territory demarcated as a No-Man’s Land, to places forbidden, to territory thought too harsh, horrible or “dangerous” to explore. I am not smart enough to be a discoverer of these countries, but more a cartographer, mapping out where our arguments take us if we truly think our arguments worth holding. Robust ideas must withstand the calm waters of everyday life as well as the turbulent rush of extreme scenarios. If these can only withstand the former but not the latter, it probably means they are not worth holding on to. After all, what is the use of holding on to something that only withstands serene environments which are safe, but not rough ones where harm is ever present?
Thus, I decided to pick on the one thought, idea, and/or argument that I find the most “dangerous”. As Daniel Dennett describes Darwin’s idea – that a basic algorithmic process can lead simple entities toward highly complex ones – a dangerous idea is one that seems to have done the most damage to previous assumptions that were held before it. Therefore I want to focus on the one idea that did this for me. I thought initially of my antinatalism: my ethical stance in not having children (whether I adopt is a separate question). But I then thought this actually fits under a broader, more compelling bracket; one which is deceptive in its initial depiction, but devastating once we follow its tributaries into almost all other ideas.
The idea I found to be most devastating is this: We are more than likely not special from a grand, top-down cosmic perspective. No thing cares about us from this perspective and the universe itself is indifferent.
No amount of pleading, yearning or petitioning will make the world or our lives automatically better. If you accept this as reality, as I did and do, you can see the devastation this has on a number of claims: the existence of the theistic god and the reality of religion’s supernatural claims, the specialness or sanctity of life, the idea that our efforts will mean anything despite how much we give, justifications for why good things happen to bad people and bad things to good. The toiling and sweat and blood our species sheds in efforts to better itself seems only a performance we put on so that perhaps, for a brief moment, we can have some joy amidst the yawning void of meaninglessness.
This is confirmed by considering the idea of bad things happening to good people: A worse explanation, it seems, than saying a god or someone equivalent hates you, is that there just is no reason. It simply is.
Susan Neiman in her book Evil in Modern Thought indicates how the problem of evil is perhaps more powerful in contemporary thought than we realise. The underlying view behind trying to manage how horrible existence often is versus how wonderful it could otherwise be, rests in how we are attempting to bridge the gap between appearance and reality. After all, how we want the world to appear is very often not how it actually is: that’s the point behind what I consider the most dangerous idea. Indeed, the nature of this blog is to constantly reinforce what the best scientific and rational arguments indicates about reality, in an attempt to bleed our best moral views onto this harsh canvas. As Neiman indicates: “The worry that fueled debates about the difference between appearance and reality was not the fear that the world might not turn out to be the way it seems to us – but rather the fear that it would.” We recognised that the world could be better, that grand designs were flawed, that if we had more power, we could shape the world into a superior place. Arguments, for Neiman, were all about denying this reality, trying to show that our perceptions about the harshness, stillness, silence and indifference were mistaken; that somewhere, somehow, something could make a grand difference. We were just somehow mistaken. God still loves us. The Universe has a plan. We are special, we mean something.
But inevitable arguments keep showing these ideas to be false: there is no loving deity, there is only silence and indifference. We are not special since there is no top-down entity. We are here by “chance” and what we have is often not the best it could otherwise be, if we had any say in the matter.
However, one should not assume from this discussion that apathetic pessimism and nihilism follows. Indeed, what I want to encourage in my follow up post, which will look at further implications, are some methods to respond in a way that maintains a sense of morality and fulfillment. That is, a way to maintain a ethical view of life that stands up to the face of an unremitting reality, an indifferent universe and a world constantly, it seems, trying to destroy us. I don’t proclaim to give you answers, but only my own response to what I consider the most devastating, dangerous idea I have encountered.
Update: Some people seem to think I'm saying Christians believe god hates them. This might be true (mostly not), but I am focused on "a" god, not particularly the Christian god. I'm asking you to imagine how terrifying it would be to have an all-powerful deity who actively hates you. My point is that the non-existence of deities and indifference from the universe might be worse.
Image Credit: NASA Goddard and Video/Flickr (link).