Monday, September 10, 2007

Rationality and the Meaning of Life

Regarding the meaning of life, Bertrand Russell famously had this to say in "A Free Man's Worship":
Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That 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; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins--all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.
In short, life, the universe, and everything are ultimately and objectively pointless and the only thing left for us to do is face up to that fact with unyielding courage.

Now, I categorically reject Russell's vision of the cosmos - "science" has not established as much as Russell thinks it has. Chiefly, though, I want to call attention to a certain inconsistency in his outlook. The inconsistency lies in the fact that Russell wants to affirm both the meaningless of life and a sort of normative rationality:
  • "our ideals henceforward must find a home" [presumably this is a rational "must"]
  • "no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand" [because a philosophy that rejected them would be irrational]
  • "only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built." [the foundation is "firm" and yields "safety" because it is rational]
My question to Russell is this: If human life is objectively meaningless, then why is there any rational obligation to care about rationality? Why should being "rational" count for anything? Russell may pat himself on the back for being intellectually courageous in the face of the bitter truth, but if he's right then there's really no point to being intellectually courageous. Indeed, that notion only has meaning in light of the idea that the world that Russell claims has been disclosed by "science" is not the whole story. "Courage", for example, implies hope that one's cause is not utterly lost and faith that one's cause is just and that it really matters.

If we propose to take rationality and truth seriously, as genuine, intrinsic goods to be sought after and cherished with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, then - if we are consistent - we will acknowledge a worldview in which it makes sense to take rationality and truth as genuine, intrinsic goods. If the world, and individual human life in particular, is not intrinsically meaningful, intrinsically valuable, then it doesn't really matter in any objective sense whether you or I are rational, courageous, virtuous, or what have you.


At 9/15/2007 2:51 PM, Blogger Enigman said...

But one can know that one's love of suger in one's tea is just biochemistry, so why not 'courage' similarly?

At 9/17/2007 3:51 PM, Blogger Roger said...

Because if one acknowledges all that Russell acknowledges (And as Alan has pointed out, there are good reasons not to do this) AND that there's not even the tiniest glimmer of rational goal or hope present (remove courage from the table), the quoted paragraph would have been written by a Bertrand Russell who was biding time on his express journey to the bottom of a particularly high cliff.

At 9/20/2007 5:59 AM, Blogger Enigman said...

"If human life is objectively meaningless, then why is there any rational obligation to care about rationality?" Language-use is a social activity, and so there are social obligations to be rational. Why should that not be the case even if we evolved as social animals?

At 10/01/2007 8:29 PM, Blogger philotheos said...

Enigman: A few things can be said in response -

First, so what if language-use is indeed a social activity? The point is, if Russell is right, then there is simply no such thing as meaning in an objective sense, no ultimate purpose or value. If so, then it is difficult to see any room for normativity. If social norms are just the result of causal factors, then there isn't any real obligation to be rational. Any talk of norms, comes down to mere convention or psychological forces at work. But if this is the case, then Russell is simply being inconsistent in then using language that presupposes normative rationality.

Secondly, it is not clear, upon reflection, that rational norms can be reduced to social norms. Yes, rational norms ARE kinds of social norms, just like humans are carbon-based lifeforms. But it does not follow that rational norms are just social norms.

Take for instance, a case of rationality in belief: if I accept

1. "if P, then Q"

and I accept that

2. "P"

then I (rationally) should accept "Q" as well. What would we make of the person who comes along and says "hey, you accept Q just because it's what you have been socialised to do"? Clearly, we would simply say that he was mistaken. It is simply the case that ANY rational being (human or otherwise), would accept Q upon accepting 1 and 2, regardless of social or cultural factors inherent. If there WAS a society where people failed to accept Q, it would be more than a matter of having different social norms - it would be a sure sign of irrationality.


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