Thursday, January 14, 2010

Yeah, Ken Ham's An Idiot, But...

PZ rightly takes Ken Ham to task for being a bleeding idiot. But for all of Ken's hemorrhaging cretinism there's a kernel of truth to what he says. One of atheism's weak points is the lack of strong justification for the continuation of the species.

PZ has the following to say on the subject:

Yes, it is a meaningless universe; the universe doesn't care about us, doesn't love us, and is mindless and indifferent. That's simple reality. What we human beings do is wrest meaning for ourselves from a pitiless, uncaring background, and I think that's wonderful, grand and glorious — it's the process of finding purpose that is our accomplishment, not the imposition of an inhuman goal by a cosmic tyrant.

Which is a noble enough sentiment, and appears to me to answer "Why bother?" with the very pragmatic "Well, we're here, might as well make the best of it.". But there are two items, one minor and one major, that I'd like to take up in response.

The minor item is PZ's use of the phrase "finding purpose", which I feel is not really accurate. "Finding" implies that the purpose already exists; since atheists posit no pre-existing purpose it's more appropriate to substitute "creating" for "finding". I see this as more than mere semantic nitpickery; the phrase "creating purpose" exposes the heart of the process in unambiguous language. Essentially we're all finding something (arbitrarily) worthwhile to do while we're waiting to die.

That was the minor point, now on to the major one. Those of us who are already here might as well try to be comfortable, but if life is essentially purposeless what argument is there for having children? If there's no purpose in life then (as I've pointed out before) the continuation of the human race is neither a logical nor a moral necessity. It seems to follow from there that people choose to have children for one of three reasons:

  1. They believe that life is an absolute (as opposed to a contingent) good and thus it is rational to have children.
  2. They do it out of self-interest.
  3. They do it out of altruism e.g. for the good of someone else/the community.

I'm pretty sure that the above three motivations are comprehensive; all the examples that I can think of appear to reduce down to one of them.

As far as item 1 goes I feel that I'm in safe territory in saying that life is a contingent, rather than arbitrary, good. There are simply far too many examples in the history of humanity of people living short, miserable lives. The long, fruitful, worthwhile life is something that we all strive for but not everyone is guaranteed. The alternative is to argue that the most miserable existence is preferable to no life at all. Conceptually that's a hard assertion to wrestle with; existence and non-existence may very well be non-commensurable. But to the extent that it is answerable my gut says that a life of misery and agony is worse than nothing at all.

W.r.t. items 2 and 3, I assert that such beliefs are simply immoral1 as they make the (as yet nonexistent) person into a tool in the service of others. One cannot be reasonably sure that the child (or, rather, the person they would grow up to be) would consent to such an arrangement, therefore a parent cannot consent to it either.

So what about the case where life is acknowledged as a contingent good but is judged, at least in select circumstances, to be worthwhile on the balance? In that case I'd argue that you cannot wrong a person who doesn't exist; no one can assert the claim that they deserve to be born. Thus the safe (and therefore rationally preferred) choice from a moral standpoint is to decline to procreate, since the imposition of life on another person cannot be universally defended.


1 Even bringing up morality in the context of atheism leads to lots of problems. See here, here, here, and here for various bits that I've written on this issue in the past.

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