Metaphysics, Ethics, and Living in an Uncertain World

The nature of ultimate reality is not provable on the rational level. It might be possible to experience it directly as part of a mystical experience. Or we might read reports by mystics and try to decide whether to believe them or not. But, without having had post-rational experiences ourselves, we are left with merely rational choices to make, coupled with faith and hope.

durer

To live our lives, we do not have any choice but to make certain unprovable assumptions which philosophers call first principles. Goedel’s Theorem states this in a formal way as it applies to mathematics. Any axiomatic system above a certain complexity A, will have an unprovable principle P, not derivable from the axiomatic system; written as A + P.

We have to make certain decisions about the purpose of life, whether we have free will or not, whether morality exists, what a good life might look like, does God exist, might we be living in a Gnostic universe built by an evil demon, etc.

The most basic decision you have to make is whether life is worth living and thus whether it is worth your while to get out of bed in the morning. In this matter, we vote with our feet. In continuing to live and do things you have already made your decision in an act of faith and hope.

Physicists, and other scientists, also make unprovable assumptions. They exhibit faith and hope. They have faith and hope that the fundamental laws of the universe are knowable and that the structure of the physical universe makes a kind of sense accessible to human reason – even though we have yet to reconcile quantum mechanics and relativity and we have officially announced that we have no real idea about the nature of 96% of the matter/energy in the universe labelling it, for the time being, dark matter and dark energy.

If you are reading this, you have decided at least for the moment, that trying to figure out these sorts of things is worthwhile. You have also gotten out of bed, or at least woken up, and are making an effort. So you and I both know what you have in fact decided. You have decided that life is worth living, though it is unprovable. Having decided that, the next question is what other unprovable assumptions might you need to make in order to make this business of living fruitful?

In other words, what are the consequences of various assumptions/first principles? If the consequences are bad, try another assumption. ‘Bad’ includes anything that conflicts with your first assumption that life is worth living. Also, does the logic of the axiom lead to a conflict with something you think you know to be true, such as your experience of the world?

Wishful thinking?

At this point, one might be self-conscious about the possibility of self-deception and wishful thinking. In the essay “Why Philosophy is Easy,” Jacob Needleman writes:

In The Guide for the Perplexed (Pt. I, Chap. XXXIV) Maimonides explains why the pursuit of metaphysical knowledge is reserved for the very few, even for them, it must not begin until they have reached fullest maturity. The subject, he says, is difficult, profound, and dangerous. He who seeks this knowledge, which equated with wisdom, must first submit to a long and difficult preparation – mental, moral and physical. Only then can he risk the incomparably more difficult and lengthy ascent to wisdom.

This naturally calls to mind Plato’s plan of education in which the highest pursuit, philosophy, is also to be the last in line. With Plato, as with Maimonides, we read that the direct search for wisdom is to be preceded by a certain training of all the natural faculties of man: the body, the emotions and the intellect.

Iris Murdoch says that learning foreign languages can play a similar role to mathematics. Such learning makes you submit to an objective reality that is immune to wishful thinking and egoistic desires. Words mean what they mean and the grammar functions the way it does regardless of how one might wish them to be.

I am learning, for instance, Russian, I am confronted by an authoritative structure, which commands my respect. The task is difficult and the goal is distant and perhaps never entirely attainable. My work is a progressive revelation of something which is independently of me. Attention is rewarded by knowledge of reality. Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something that my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal (Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics, 1997, p. 373)

The young are not going to be reliable guides to metaphysics because they haven’t had enough experience with objective reality. Having less emotional control and not-fully developed powers of thought, they tend to extremes – extremes of idealism, where they wish to remake the world in their desired direction and force the rest of us to conform, or extremes of pessimism, seeing themselves as admirable pursuers of truth, with the truth being the most extreme form of nihilism possible.

Life experience teaches us that we should have compassion for our fellow humans and that the idealist/progressive is a most frightening person willing perhaps to kill those who stand in the way of their desired utopia. It also teaches us that human decency exists, so extreme pessimism in that regard is misguided.

Beauty, truth and goodness

So, barring religious experiences of our own, we must make our best guesses as to the truths of metaphysics. Maturity and relative emotional stability will hopefully improve these guesses.

The traditional metaphysical conjunction is between truth, goodness and beauty – the notion that they all are related, or are different aspects of the same thing. One can certainly have hope and faith that they are; though doubt and despair are going to occur too.

One looks to the words and lives of people like Jesus, Buddha and Plato, and decides whether one finds them beautiful or not; whether one finds them to be good or not and whether what they say seems true or not. This process seems to involve a degree of anamnesis – a remembering of the soul. Aesthetic judgment is also involved; are we drawn to the reality they describe or not? Not having a properly developed sense of the beautiful will be an impediment.

Plotinus thought that the soul had an intrinsic connection with beauty and that experience of the beautiful reminded the soul of its true nature, comparing our souls with drunken people stumbling and lost on their route home.

Pascal’s Wager and Optionality

In Pascal’s wager, believing in God is seen as a precondition for eternal life in heaven with a failure to believe leading to eternal damnation if God in fact exists. Therefore, we have everything to gain in believing in God and obtaining eternal life and nothing much to lose if we are wrong that God exists. Conversely, being right that God does not exist has no real upside, but being wrong exposes one to the worst possible outcome; eternal damnation. We might agree that one may as well believe that God exists, but eternal damnation just for not believing something does not seem to make rational sense.

So instead, one might say that for every aspect of life that seems to make life worth living, one can find its opposing mate. For every item like family, health, hope, love, friendship, good books, movies and music one can oppose horrible families, sickness, despair, hatred, enemies and bad books, movies and music. Rationally, the situation seems to be a stalemate. However, the concept of optionality can help us here as seen in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Antifragile. Optionality is Taleb’s suggestion about how to act rationally in conditions of uncertainty. Positive optionality involves exposing oneself to large possible upsides with little downside. In surgery for life-threatening cancer one has much to gain and little to lose. Taking Vioxx for a headache is negative optionality – little to gain, a reduction of relatively minor pain, and much to lose; heart valve damage.

The four choices are;

  • Life is worth living – right
  • Life is worth living – wrong
  • Life is not worth living – right
  • Life is not worth living – wrong.

If you choose ‘life is worth living’ and you are right, then this would be the equivalent of Pascal’s believing in God  and going to heaven. You will live your life believing it to be good and beautiful. You will love and learn, have friends, engage in projects, live a hopefully fulfilling life and die. Best of all, your assumption will be right. It has a massive upside.

If you choose ‘life is worth living’ and you are wrong, you will do all of the above. Falsely thinking that love and friendship, health and joy, goals and family are good and beautiful and then dying is not good, but it doesn’t seem too bad either. The downside seems minor.

Whereas, being right that life is not worth living does not seem to have any real upside. One could take some dour satisfaction in being right before killing oneself to put an end to the pointless misery.

And thinking that life is not worth living and being wrong would be the equivalent of eternity in hell in Pascal’s thinking. You would have wasted your life, missing out on everything good or failing to appreciate it. You will have thrown your life away and lost everything. The downside of that bet would be the worst possible outcome.

So, optionality says that rationally, we should bet that life is worth living. You have little to lose and everything to gain. By still being alive and bothering to read this, you have made this bet anyway.

What to do once you’ve decided life is worth living

If life is worth living, then one should want to live it well. One has already rejected despair as a rational option. So, every time one has a decision to make about which metaphysical and unprovable assumption to accept one should choose the option that is most consistent with the faith and hope that life is worth living.

If one follows a philosophy or metaphysical assumption that leads to a dead end; that would make life pointless, then one needs to back track and make another assumption. One can find oneself looking for the exit. The philosophy of Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane, contrasts “religious man” with “secular man,” and suggests that the only meaningful life is the life of religious man, but that being religious man is no longer possible. The implication is that one should commit suicide. At that point, one is looking for the exit – for a door to another outcome. One has taken a wrong turn and needs to find another way to one’s destination – that destination being a life as good and meaningful as possible.

One can picture these choices in the manner of decision trees. For example:

thought-tree1

Or:

thought-tree2

The goal is to avoid nihilism – the notion that life is a pointless waste of time, promoting misery and pain with no meaning or worth – and thus suicide.

The young or less experienced may not be in a good position to see the logical implications of their choices. Many of them pursue truth, supposedly, but do not, supposedly, think truth is linked to goodness and beauty. And yet they invariably consider themselves virtuous in pursuing truth to the most horrible outcomes – so they do link truth and goodness after all.

The thing is, metaphysical truths are not definitively provable using rational argumentation. So the young nihilist can’t really claim that he has proven himself to be right. Young nihilists are just embracing the possible truth of a dead end and wanting to be admired for being so hard core; so brave in facing the truth of nihilism, so careless of their own happiness (and ours). But really, they have just mistakenly embraced negative optionality and have despaired, with nothing to gain except a kind of nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah.

Contradictions

Belief in the law of noncontradiction is a prerequisite for rational reflection at all. There may be metaphysical truths directly accessible only on the post-rational level, but they don’t imply contradictions because true contradictions are impossible.

Instead of killing themselves, the nihilist wants our admiration while he continues to say how pointless it all is. In their earnest way, young nihilists continue to think that it is meaningful to persuade us that life is not meaningful. In fact, they will make it their life’s mission to convince the unpersuaded which they will regard as a worthwhile and meaningful enterprise. Their putative love of truth contradicts their nihilism. They don’t regard the pursuit of truth as a stupid and pointless thing; in fact, they consider it good. Hence they are committed to the good and the true.

Nihilism and materialism are assumptions congenial to each other. Certain people seem to think that materialism has been proven to be true. Not so. It’s simply a common assumption. The relation between mind and body remains an open question.

Some are so committed to materialism as a metaphysical truth that they are willing to accept contradictions or at least over look them. As I have mentioned elsewhere before, Francis Crick says “‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” (Science Set Free, Rupert Sheldrake, p. 110, 2012) The trouble is that if all mental activity is “no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules,” then that thought itself is “no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules” and not to be taken seriously; “no more than” being the key phrase here.

Dualism concerning mind and body, or spiritual monism, with both mind and body being projections from a spiritual realm, may, logically speaking, be false, but these beliefs do not imply any contradictions. Materialists, however, sometimes go so far as to deny consciousness at all while continuing to try to persuade us conscious beings of their theory. If we are not conscious, who are they persuading and why choose us to persuade and not a chair?

Materialism seems to imply determinism too – so some will ignore the contradictions involved in holding that position too. If determinism is true, the determinist has no choice but to believe in it, or not to believe in it, according to his own supposition, so he hasn’t actually chosen to believe anything. Certainly it is pointless to argue with the rest of us that determinism is true, because whether we agree or not is the result of implacable physical forces, not free will.

It is these kinds of contradictions that reinforce my faith and hope that my metaphysical choices are not only life-promoting but true as well. I take great comfort that I may be wrong, but at least I’m not definitely wrong like many people extolling materialism or determinism.

Nihilism

It is not possible to prove that nihilism is definitively incorrect. Many metaphysical truths are not provable. But we want positive optionality and if we consider suicide as undesirable, then nihilism is simply not an option.

Nihilists who bother arguing for nihilism are hypocrites. Hopefully, the young nihilist will abandon his hard man pose and try to find something more positive to believe in. An inconsistent nihilist is better than a dead one.

Gnosticism could, logically speaking be true, and this world could be created by an evil god called the Demiurge. But, we have no evidence that that is true. I don’t think the Gnostics actually claimed to have experienced this Demiurge during some religious ecstasy either. As a life-hating religion it would seem to be a very bad idea to embrace it. Positive optionality and thus rationality would suggest rejecting Gnosticism.

If in practice, only psychopaths are genuine and consistent moral nihilists, this does not mean that every person who considers themselves to be a moral nihilist is a psychopath. Oftentimes, people embrace philosophical positions that lead to nihilism without really appreciating the fact. For instance, the logic of moral relativism pushes one to think that morality is a fiction – it is whatever you say it is. The relativist is trying to be tolerant, but is logically committed to nihilism, often without realizing it. In wanting to be tolerant, the relativist considers tolerance a truly good thing and must reject nihilism. One can try to warn people of the logical implications of their metaphysical assumptions without simply committing an ad hominem.

The Good, True and the Beautiful Decision Tree

One decision tree could be:

Does God exist?

If the universe exists because of God and God is rational and good, then the universe will exist for a purpose and that purpose will be good. Life can be counted on to be meaningful and scientists can continue to hope that the order of the universe may be discoverable. So, I choose YES, God exists.

Does free will exist?

YES. Without free will, I would effectively be nothing but a mechanistic robot doing what I have been pre-programmed to do. My choices would be meaningless. I could neither be praised nor blamed for anything I do and my entire existence would be pointless. Determinism is a despairing hell.

Might God exist, but be evil? (See Gnosticism)

NO. See reasons above.

Does morality exist?

YES. I have experienced moral guilt as has every non-psychopath on the planet and thus have direct evidence that morality exists. I believe in fairness and justice, love and mercy, as does every non-psychopath. I believe in these things because I have witnessed them and have no convincing reasons for thinking my experiences are illusory. In addition, choosing this option makes life more beautiful and meaningful. I would not want to live in a universe where being a psychopathic murderer was not a bad thing or where being mean was on a moral par with being kind.

Iris Murdoch would have liked to believe in God but, possibly because of her cultural context, considered it no longer to be a live option. My experience thinking about such things indicates that an atheistic non-nihilist decision-tree may not exist. Fortunately, theism remains a live option for many of us. God has not been proven not to exist or to be an absurdity and there is no contradiction involved in believing in God.

Thomas Nagel has said that he would not want to live in a universe with a God in it. His response to an email asking him about this was “I have nothing more to say on the matter.” So, some people do not see a belief in God as life-affirming.

One gets the impression that people tend to have a gut-feeling one way or the other and then choose their reasons for believing or not believing following their respective intuitions. One imagines that they do not find the idea of God beautiful. Maybe they simply find that they can’t believe, limiting their options.

Final Advice

The advice is to keep choosing metaphysical commitments that you find to be life-affirming – that seem to offer the promise of leading you on and helping you to feel that you are moving forward towards some positive goal. If you find a door shutting in your face and no exit appears in front of you, try making a different commitment. Despair is a permanent human possibility, but it is not a necessary one. If you keep looking, with a bit of luck, you will find a way. Matthew 7:7 “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”

Richard-Cocks2Richard Cocks teaches philosophy with key interests in ethics, metaphysics and consciousness from Platonic, Christian and Buddhist perspectives, with an especial interest in canonical works of Western Civ.

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