Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Matt on the Existential Files: Some further thoughts....

A couple of weeks ago, I had an enjoyable chat with Louie Savva and Matthew Smith on the Existential Files podcast.

According to the home page, The Existential Files follows

 "the Rick-and-Morty-esque adventures of Dr Matthew Smith and Dr Louie Savva as they explore the universe. Louie is the Rick-like misanthropic atheist and existential nihilist. Matthew, Morty-esque with his ever so slightly naive take on existence. Together, the two of them delve into parallel dimensions, ask why the universe exists, what the meaning of life is, and generally ask every question under the sun!"

...which is basically the impression I got when appearing on the podcast.

Podcasts are fun, but they can also be a little nerve-wracking. Before, during and after this one I found myself agonising over the points that I was trying to make. I'm a terrible second-guesser. As soon as the words have escaped my mouth I quite often find myself wondering things like, did I really mean that? Is that really what I feel or believe? Did what I just say really, effectively communicate my thoughts? It's, after all, so easy to be misunderstood.

In addition, I'm not one of those people who feel a high degree of certainty about any of my views, on anything. The longer that I live, the more baffled I am by pretty much everything. And as soon as I do settle on one point of view, I tend to start doubting myself. This, I suppose, is probably suspicious and even infuriating to those who profess metaphysical certainty.

As you'll hear, my views on various things differ significantly from Louie in some respects. I think our main bone of contention is over his hardline existentialist worldview.

Back in 1974, the Nobel prize winning biochemist Jacques Monod published a book entitled Chance and Necessity, where he claimed that it was possible to explain everything through a combination of the laws of physics ('necessity') and chance (life as a cosmic accident). To Monod, life is an absurd quirk, and we are alienated beings in a hostile universe:

"Man must wake out of his millenary dream and discover his total solitude, his fundamental isolation. He must realise that, like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world, a world that is deaf to his music, as as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his sufferings and crimes."

But this world picture seems questionable. What Monod and other writers do is over-inflate the results of evolutionary biology, physics and chemistry, mix in some very cultural biases, and use what are actually rather vague metaphors ('blind chance 'and 'necessity') to explain absolutely everything.

This has long seemed rather suspicious to me. For a start, it's important to distinguish between the very successful and enduring theory of Darwinian natural selection, and this sort of all-encompassing world picture. The facts of science are not the same as the wider world picture that attempts to fit them together. So it is quite possible to accept Darwin's account of evolution (I do, strongly) and to question the wider world picture.

Back in 2012, the philosopher Thomas Nagel rattled a lot of cages by questioning this world-picture, which he termed materialistic reductionism. He did this because of the failure to resolve the more tricky problems of consciousness in conventional, materialist terms. He also reminded us that:

"Humans are addicted to the hope for a final reckoning, but intellectual humility requires that we resist the temptation to assume that tools of the kind we now have are in principle sufficient to understand the universe as a whole." He also pointed out that "...our successors will make discoveries and develop forms of understanding of which we have not dreamt." (Mind and Cosmos, Introduction).

This point alone seems to me a very good reason to be skeptical of anyone who claims to have final answers about life, the universe and everything. See this TED discussion of questions no-one knows that answers to, and tell me whether any kind of certainty is justified:

I must admit that I find the widespread acceptance of the 'absurd' Universe a little puzzling. I suspect that many people, having rejected religion and supernatural forces, feel that they have no choice because it's 'scientific.'

However, it's long seemed a very impoverished world picture to me. This is because the primary aim of such a worldview is negative. The intention is to extinguish any traces of the supernatural -- God, or the soul -- from the Universe. But this 'weedkiller' move leaves what the philosopher Mary Midgley has termed an 'existential vacuum,' which seems to me to be a significant contributor to a widespread sense of alienation.

As I said on the podcast, we need to take alienation seriously. Victor Frankl noted that "such widespread phenomena as depression, aggression and addiction are not understandable unless we recognise the existential vacuum underlying them (Man's Search for Meaning)." He also suggested that "not a few cases of suicide" can be traced back to this vacuum.

For me, anyway, Monod's world picture is actually refuted by Astrobiology. Sure, we're adapted to a relatively tiny portion of the universe, a planetary surface. But modern science shows how intimately we're connected to the universe, and also dependent upon wider, cosmological processes for our very existence. Yes, our existence is temporary, yes it's fragile, and yes, suffering and evil are part of that existence. But the dark side is not the whole story.

It seems to me that a more positive take on the findings of modern science would emphasise our deep connections to the universe, and could go a long way to healing the existential vacuum. This, perhaps would be a more constructive approach than more puritanical forms of existentialism.