Monday, December 1, 2008

I Go on an Anti-God Rant

Stanley Fish on Paradise Lost:

"To say that a 'mortal taste' brought death into the world is to say something tautologous; but the tautology is profound when it reminds us of both the costs and the glories of being mortal. If no mortality, then no human struggles, no narrative, no story, no aspiration (in eternity there’s nowhere to go), no “Paradise Lost.”"

The phrase "the glories of being mortal" seems to edge awkwardly close to theodicy. In being mortal, we give up "eternity," but we accept in return the glories of. . . well, it isn't immediately obvious that "human struggles" are a source of glory, I should hope, so let's go with "narrative," "story," "aspiration," and "'Paradise Lost.'" Except I'm going to leave out "aspiration," too, because it seems like a different issue. So, anyway, this seems to me to be a distillation of a fairly common theodicy - we have "free will," whatever that means to the theodicer (I guess that's not a word, but it should be), because the possibility of evil somehow allows for more satisfactory narratives. If there was no evil, no struggle, no aspiration, there would be no stories, and this is the moral justification for our incredibly imperfect world.

Now, instinctively, it seems to me that this assertion is actively offensive - who could possibly assume that we can take "narrative," "story," and "'Paradise Lost'" as an acceptable replacement for all of the holes in the world? And yet how can I reconcile my instincts with my strong sense that I am alive purely and solely because of art and to a large degree because of narrative art? When I'm asked what I would do if I were certain of never again being able to enjoy art (imagine God coming down and telling me that that was it, I had my fun and now it's over), I reply simply enough - I'd die. There wouldn't be any point anymore. Nothing else I know of has made life worthwhile in the way that art does.

But, although on the surface this may seem like an interesting question, I'm not sure to what degree there's really a contradiction involved. Obviously, as someone who didn't create the world or my outer circumstances, I've decided that the world that I found myself in is worth living in despite its massive imperfections (actually, "decide" isn't really the right term there, as I haven't made an active choice - it's more a basic, inarguable premise of my consciousness. But I suppose in not committing suicide I at least passively make a decision to live every waking moment of every day.). But that doesn't mean that it's morally right of someone else, some theoretical God, to put me in a position to have to make the awkward choice between continued flawed existence or throwing the baby out with the bathwater. A Kantian and a utilitarian might disagree on the accurate moral choice to make when the evil supervillain threatens to kill everyone in the world if you refuse to kill five innocent people. But I think they can both agree that the evil supervillain is both evil and a supervillain. Both of them would prefer to live in the happy shiny world without supervillains, where we can academically discuss these choices without actually having to, you know, make them.

And so, oddly enough, despite my the primacy of my love for narrative, my sense that it's what's keeping me alive, I feel as though this is merely a makeshift bandage on a giant seeping wound. It works, and it keeps me alive, but it's much better not to be wounded in the first place. Honestly, anyone who creates a world that incorporates consciousness shouldn't make it so that any one, separable, distinguishable pinpoint, not even something so lovely and beautiful as art, is necessary for consciousness's acceptance of life. Conscious beings should, in the ideal world, accept life as a good in itself. If mortality makes this impossible (as Fish suggests when he admits that being mortal has "costs" - you're already making a moral mistake when you're imposing costs on people, because then you're setting them up in a position where they have to choose between either living with the costs or else missing out on the glories) then there shouldn't be mortality - I'd rather be consistently happy with no literature than happy for a brief time with literature. And what if consciousness cannot be happy with literature, and literature cannot exist without mortality? Well, in that case, we're accepting the premise that consciousness in and of itself implies lack, that consciousness itself is the wound, that consciousness and satisfaction are mutually incompatible. In that case, you know what, it's not worth it to create consciousness.


Lonin said...

booyah. take that, God.

you know, this is, really, one of the most effective anti-God rants i've ever read. "A Kantian and a utilitarian... can both agree that the evil supervillain is both evil and a supervillain" especially is just totally invaluable -- and that i mean to the theological war that always be a-ragin' in my head.

... both of these anti-whatever rants are just getting into such deep, deep territory. "maybe consciousness itself is the wound"...!?? i'm floating in the interstellar underground. do, keep 'em coming.

... and actually, i mean, i can't get behind the sentiment of "you know what, then it's not worth it to create consciousness". but then, that's why i'm glad *you* wrote this post, not me, because that's where the whole thing was leading, wasn't it...?

(still, i have to say *something*: if consciousness and satisfaction were mutually incompatible, would it make any sense to talk about satisfaction at all? because how can you have satisfaction without consciousness? so there wouldn't be any satisfaction in the universe, and how could anyone even know what satisfaction *was*? but -- that's okay -- we really do agree ultimately -- because you're at least operating under the assumption that *this* world, the one *we* live in, is not like that at all, that that's another evil-supervillain world, and you're operating under the assumption that you *do* in fact know what satisfaction is and that is *is* possible. i mean... aren't you??)

Grace Mulligan said...

Thanks again for your comments! I'm really glad that you appreciate what I have to write and find it thought-provoking, and I definitely find your responses and comments thought-provoking as well.

In this case, your question about satisfaction was definitely thought-provoking. If you'd asked me without your explanation whether or not consciousness and satisfaction were mutually exclusive, I'd have answered that I'm an agnostic on this issue - it may or may not be true, and I don't particularly have evidence against it. But your point certainly makes sense. I think ultimately I can reconcile my agnosticism with your point if we reduce the contradiction to a semantic issue. In fact, although I know what I meant and remember why I chose to phrase it the way I did, I'm willing to accept that, for the sake of a lyrical tone, I did in fact use terminology unclearly. So, once again at Holbonic length, please allow me to correct my terminology.

Okay. First of all, I think it's useful to start with another analogy. In this case, let's imagine that, rather than having said, "consciousness and satisfaction are mutually incompatible," I'd said, "consciousness and happiness are mutually incompatible." Had I said this, I clearly couldn't possibly have meant it literally. I have direct empirical evidence that consciousness and happiness are in fact quite compatible. However, I can easily imagine myself having said this in a somewhat poetic way. What I would have meant, however, would have been that "consciousness and constant happiness are mutually incompatible." In other words, I am obviously happy some of the time and not happy all of the time. It may (or may not) be the case that it would be impossible for any conscious being to be happy all of the time. I think this is a justifiable and perfectly plausible statement as well as a meaningful one. Even if constant happiness is impossible, we can imagine it - it seems to be a meaningful concept. This is true even though I seriously doubt that any conscious being has ever achieved it. Maybe it's possible to achieve, but maybe it isn't. Even if it isn't, however, because we have momentary happiness, we can meaningfully imagine what it would be like to be happy all the time. This is still true even if it is in fact the case that this imaginary experience is impossible (which I am agnostic about); the limited experience permits us to imagine the broader one even if we've never had it.

If, by "satisfaction," I'd just meant "happiness," it would then be very easy for me to explain what I meant to you when I wrote that "consciousness and satisfaction are mutually incompatible." I would just mean that "consciousness and constant satisfaction are mutually incompatible." However, I don't think that I did just mean "happiness" when I wrote "satisfaction," which complicates things. In fact, if you asked me if I was ever satisfied in the sense that I meant by satisfaction when I was writing this, I'd have to say no. Take the times when I am happy, which would seem to be the most likely candidates for times when I would consider myself satisfied. Well, I know that I'm not satisfied at those times. Even though I'm happy, I'm always aware that I won't be happy forever and, even more, that I will be sad again. I regret the impossibility of constant happiness and, even more, the inevitability of sadness. I think that life is lacking in many ways, despite my happiness, and that it could meaningfully be better.

So, if I'm never satisfied, then your point seems to have some valence! How can I possibly know what satisfaction is? If it's not possible to have this thing, then it's not a meaningful concept!

I think, however, that I can justifiably claim a concept of perfect satisfaction, just as I can justify a concept of constant happiness. Just as "constant happiness" is taking a limited concept, momentary happiness, and generalizing from it, I can find a concept of limited satisfaction and generalize from that. Obviously, I can't do it in the same way as I did with happiness, however - my limited satisfaction can't be momentary satisfaction. So, instead, I would create my concept of satisfaction as follows:

Currently, I am not satisfied with my job. I know that I'm not satisfied with my job because it is a source of some of the sadness in my experience. However, back in October of 2006, I was satisfied with my "job." I was certainly not satisfied with everything - although I was very happy at that time, I still had problems and was also certainly still conscious of potential sadness in the future. But I didn't see my job then as a source of any of my problems. Thus, I was not "satisfied" in the big sense of finding everything in my experience satisfactory. But I still was satisfied with my job.

I think that I can meaningfully build up from this concept of limited satisfaction to a concept of total satisfaction. Limited satisfaction is when you don't see one particular thing as a source of problems or potential sadness in your life. Total satisfaction, then, is if you are limited-ly satisfied with everything, ie, you don't see anything as a source of problems or potential sadness in your life. Once again, as with momentary happiness and constant happiness, I see this as a fair extrapolation. We have all certainly experienced limited satisfaction. Given our experience of limited satisfaction, then, it is certainly possible to imagine total satisfaction. But I don't believe anyone has ever experienced it. Moreover, it may be the case that it is impossible to experience it - though, as ever, I stress that I am an agnostic on this point. The argument relevant to Stanley Fish's post would be: A) Both immortality and narrative are necessary to total satisfaction. B) However, immortality and narrative are mutually incompatible. (C) Thus, total satisfaction is impossible. I am agnostic about both (A) and (B). I don't know what Stanley Fish's position on (A) is, but he seems to be arguing that (B) is true. But, anyway, even if total satisfaction is impossible, this does not mean that it would be a meaningless concept - all I need is limited satisfaction, clearly a meaningful concept, and I can easily extrapolate from there to conceive of total satisfaction, whether it is possible or not.