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Critique of Intelligent Design

Evolution vs. Creationism

The Art of ID Stuntmen

Faith vs Reason

Anthropic Principle

Autopsy of the Bible code

Science and Religion

Historical Notes


Serious Notions with a Smile


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Mark Perakh's Web Site

Reply part 2

Dear Mr. Kalchstein,

Your present questions are far more straightforward that the previous ones, by virtue of being universal, far removed from dangerous specifics, and smacking of metaphysics. I will answer them briefly -- though not as briefly as you would have liked.

The question of the purpose (or meaning) of human existence.

In fact, it is no different than the question of the purpose-meaning of any object.

What is the purpose of a hammer's existence? To hammer nails? To crack nuts? To be used in street fights? To scratch one's back? To hang on the front door instead of a bell? The right answer is that the hammer has no objective purpose. Its purpose is decided -- if it is decided -- by an outside agency, by its owner for example. Besides, the very act of asking the question of purpose necessarily brings us to the owner himself. First the owner, then maybe the purpose, but only provided that the owner is not indifferent to the hammer.

Let us consider the most prosaic example of a purpose, or aim -- that of the target in a shooting gallery. We try our hardest to hit it, and yet it does not represent any sort of an objective purpose for shooting. We were the ones to hang the colored piece of paper on the wall. We were the ones to call it "target". That, and only that, is what makes it one -- and only where we are concerned.

Once again, the very act of talking about a purpose presupposes a purpose-giver, an aim-setter. A purpose, or an aim, is first set, and only then can we shoot at it. A purpose is a reflection of some need, not the need itself. A purpose is the product of our self-constitution, and no more than that. Our common sense accepts this convention, for it is convenient and efficient. Yet we must not take it too seriously. Man (or man's existence) has no objective, a-priori purpose. Those who ascribe a purpose to man tacitly imply the existence of a mastermind, be it a creator, a ruler, a God, a state, or a collective. Yet by making this implication, do we not from the very outset eliminate the chance of any discussion of God or state?

And so, human existence has no immutable, objective purpose, even though temporary objective purposes are quite possible. In principle, there are dozens of interesting subjective purposes (targets), but each of them is derived from one worldview or another, and thus is not an a priori entity by any means. We can talk about your or my provisional purpose (and even then cautiously), but not about purpose in general. Those whose purpose is knowledge view the world primarily as a mystery. Those whose main purpose is personal success regard the world as an antagonistic rival game. Those who believe their purpose to be the attainment of social justice see the world as a habitat. Yet the world is none of those nor is it anything else -- from the teleological point of view, it is nothing at all. The world does not know the concept of purpose (which is why teleological speculations of any kind are fundamentally wrong, leaving aside the second law of thermodynamics). Purpose is the product of the anthropomorphic attitudes to which we subject the world we live in. The world disagrees with Kant and his desperate last-ditch attempts to retain something of the dead God by inventing a-priori categories. Alas, the world itself is totally indifferent to purposes and meanings. However, the world's indifference to a priori purpose also implies its absence in man.

Human collectives are a different matter. They are inherently incapable of existing in an ideological vacuum. On the contrary, they are in the grip of ideologies, and thus, whether they like it or not, they are armed with, or rather driven by, purposes. Yet these purposes too are not objective or a priori. Rather, they are a typical derivative of the material and ideological state of the collective.

Here is another good example. A soccer team has a clear purpose -- to score a goal. To kick the ball in between the goalposts -- couldn't be any clearer. But now imagine a badly drunk team. What if it confuses the goals? What if it forgets that it is playing soccer, and not handball or rugby? That the game has not even started, or is already over?

In order to have a goal, one must clearly grasp the rules of the game. Yet the rules of the game do not fall from the heavens. Someone invents them and sets them.

Moreover, it is not enough to understand the rules. They must be accepted. Only then does the concept of purpose acquire meaning. Only then does it make sense to aim the gun at the target -- particularly at the bulls-eye.

Incidentally, why not at the top right corner?

The question of the highest value.

I am very sorry, but, unlike the quite thought-provoking question about purpose/meaning, the question of values is a trap pure and simple. Let us try to extricate ourselves from it.

For starters, I would like to note that a value, to be a value, must be at least somewhat immanent. In other words, it cannot be too temporary, too relative, or too antiquated. Instead, it should be stable, reliable, and more or less universal.

Obviously, there is no such thing in the world. For the sake of discussion, let us focus exclusively on the Jews. For a portion of the Jews, the highest value lies in obeying the will of God as interpreted by the author of the Shulchan Aruch. To others, this allegedly God-given codex does not mean a thing. Some of these others are dyed-in-the-wool socialists, sparing no effort to try and transform the world into what they consider the ideal society -- a kibbutz. Others -- anti-socialists of every kind -- believe that the way to redeem the world is to eradicate socialism and its manifestations, including kibbutzim. The liberals save the world through free love, the conservatives by banning abortions.

The simplest thing would be to assume, tentatively at least, that purpose is in itself a value. But whatever for? Purpose is an artificial construct, one that allows us to function in a more or less efficient manner, whereas value is the motley plumage covering our teleological nudity. Besides, one can hardly talk about individual values (or morality) in earnest -- they simply have no physical meaning. Most importantly, however, any a priori morality or a priori values are absolutely out of the question. Aficionados of moral exercises have tried to use survival as the measuring stick of value -- often collective, less often personal; or, failing that, human life, religion, race, truth, or pleasure. However, more often than objections, they were met with misunderstanding. Your values are not our cup of tea, they would be told. We have plenty of our own.

Universal values do not exist, if only because actually existing values are particular and evolutionary. It would be useless to admonish an Indian for savoring his enemy's liver -- every man to his value. It would be equally pointless to offer money to an Amazon Indian -- he has no idea of ownership. Our ancestors were exactly the same (they ate human liver and had no idea of ownership), but we have forgotten that. Human sacrifice is either a heinous crime or a sacred duty, depending on which picture of the world is closer to our heart. Nor would it be of any use to bring in the golden evolutionary rule "Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you"(probably invented in China, reinvented in Greece, and lifted by the authors of the Mishnah -- yet in fact as old as the dinosaurs; if there is anything that holds world and society together, it is dynamic equilibrium, whereas its theoretical grasp helps society no more than the concept of equilibrium helps our vestibular apparatus). After all, before putting this rule to use, we must choose our partners, "our" people to whom this rule applies, and the "others", those whose liver may be eaten. You must agree that this makes universality vanish along with appetite. Look at the way the world reacts to famine in Africa, compare this reaction to the current disaster in the Southern seas, and everything will become crystal clear.

There is hardly any point in applying the moral yardstick you have offered. Just like a conductor's baton, it is effective only in the presence of a professionally trained orchestra. Otherwise waving it around is an exercise in futility -- unless it is used to chase away flies

On the other hand, rejection of the concept of universal values, absolute values, values that are outside of time and social realities, must not be viewed as rejection of values per se. It is just that no one has the license to arrange them in a hierarchical order – unless it is done according to one's own taste. I myself am a liberal, and I adhere to a liberal moral framework. Yet I would never hold it up as universal or even immutable.

Whatever the system of values you adhere to, do not make it into an idol. Trust me, the result will look ugly and unappealing. I have tried it myself.