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  • Raymond Tallis on a meaningless universe and human existence

    I have been in communication with Raymond Tallis and, surprisingly, he gave me a digital draft of his book Seeing Ourselves before its release a month from now. I have read portions of it so far and I really enjoy it. Its goal is to outline a view of reality that is spiritual yet godless. Like his previous book Logos he puts a large emphasis on the uniqueness of human beings as being qualitatively different from anything else in the universe. We outstrip all other animals, possessing unique intellectual capacities to know and imbue the universe with intentionality and discover its intelligibility. He believes there is an undercurrent of 'disenchantment' which has welled up into a eliminativist fad--claiming a la Stephen Hawking that we are mere toxic sludge floating in a meaningless galaxy lost in a matrix of billions of other galaxies. Tallis retorts that mere toxic sludge could never pronounce such an existential fiat, could never conceptualize and take-in the scope of the universe, could never be anything beyond sludgeness, beyond a viewpointedless being. The mere annunciation of meaningless reveals us to be more than a mere meaningless and insignificant part of a drifting mindless universe.

    Tallis is a harsh critic of transhumanism, the idea that if we invest our resources into computational technology, we may be able to "upload" our consciousness and live on virtually in some pantheistic net of unified mind-nodes. Even if it were possible to imbue the third-person mindless flecks of metallic hardware with our first-person subjective viewpoints, this would only delay our eventual deaths, it wouldn't cure it. For computers can be smashed and, given the current state of physics, the universe will suffer an eventual heat death and flicker out into an eternal darkness. So Tallis believes a secular humanist, himself one, cannot find consolation in immortality. He doesn't think living on in the memories of others, or leaving some mark on the world, some cultural impact, can ever truly replace a dying notion of a transcendental afterlife and our destiny towards it. The memory of others isn't you, your residual impact on the world isn't you. On secular humanism you cannot cheat the grave, you cannot somehow live beyond it. He also believes that if immortality simple means "living-on" in some post-mortem effect on the world, then men such as Stalin, Hitler, or Ted Bundy have found the sure way to achieve that goal. This also brings in the chilling truth that the secular humanist cannot ensure a reality where sanctity and righteousness is the victor of history--for all we know, in a godless world, evil may have the last word.

    Tallis concludes his book literally with a statement that he cannot conclude it properly. He doesn't come to some profound revelation regarding the mystery of meaning in a world which seems to be waking up from dreams of the divine into the aching existence of divineless reality. He believes that perhaps the meaningfulness of reality may be found not in our parochial distractions from it (as if the daily pastimes of eating, drinking, or entertainment can cure a creeping nihilism), but rather in our gratitude for the self-evident metaphysics we seek to deny, in our realization that we are beings with a unique nature, with a strange faculty of knowing the universe to its widest margins. And we should peer not just into the literally enchanting nature of our individual rational consciousness, but also backwards down the annals of history, garnering an appreciation for our ancestors who have gifted us with the achievements of this rational consciousness down the millennia--art, religion, music, philosophy, science, etc.

    Despite this nearly four-hundred page attempt to ground meaning and value into human existence and reality in general, something still disturbs me about secular humanism: death. As Tallis admits himself, immortality, at least for him, isn't a feature of reality. And, in my brief communication with him, he believes his thoughts on this ultimate doom are currently inconclusive. The one thing that I don't think secular humanism can recapture from religion is a cosmic transcendental teleology. Religion offers a narrative for mankind, a sort of self-awareness that involves mankind positioning itself as that which, in the words of Marcus Aurelius "echoes in eternity." Death, for a Christian at least, isn't that which dooms all we do to ash, which sentences all of our achievements, our vices, virtues, etc. to oblivion, it is that which imbues our fleeting existences with meaning. It is death which seals our fates and which sentences us towards our ultimate end or separates us from it. The cosmic teleology of the religious is one which permeates conception and death. It doesn't cease after one dies, it deepens in intensity.

    Secular humanism may be able to replicate and live-out the virtuous side of religion, but I think the grave, on this view, still renders all of our actions shallow if not futile. And acquiescing to the self-evident thereness of our existential condition (a human history fated for oblivion) only serves to underscore a reality flanked by non-existence. Perhaps, if one is to peer deep enough into a godless world, the only proper solution is to relish in the absurdity of it all. To pronounce that God is dead and, in the same breath, that in the face of it all we should revel in our unique and esoteric nature as rational animals, seems like a cry of desperation.

  • #2
    Originally posted by RomanJoe View Post
    To pronounce that God is dead and, in the same breath, that in the face of it all we should revel in our unique and esoteric nature as rational animals, seems like a cry of desperation.
    hey Roman Joe, after some time, I sort of think I know where you're coming from - though of course I may be mistaken! Anyway, why see "it's a cry of desperation" as the consequence of what you put before, and not "a cry of affirmation" or even only "a cry of the best we have"? Your post sounds as though you want to cling to Christianity out of concern over death, while not being convinced that its claims are true. An alternative is to affirm your limited, mortal, human life, and make it the most it can be, on the assumption that there will not be a second "you" to live a second life.

    In any case, rock on, bro.

    Comment


    • #3
      I agree that secular humanism has problems with fleshing out meaning in life.

      What is worth pointing out is I think we should *start* with the fact that human life has deep meaning, and then look for what worldview best accounts for and explains that. We shouldn't simply be seeing meaning as a conclusion; it is a datum, which is why behind every existentialist there seems to be at least an implicit recognition that "under nihilism, things are not the way they *should* be". Nihilism and a lack of meaning are only relevant topics of discussion because they are revolting; and they ARE revolting. And they are only revolting because there is such a thing as meaning and a standard of value and meaning to which humans are called. We should take that as a datum like we do with existence, consciousness and more, and see what worldview bettr explains it. And I mean this as a rational issue, not as one of mere feeling or preference. And seems to me christianity makes much better sense of meaning than secular humanism ever could.

      Comment


      • #4
        Originally posted by ficino View Post

        hey Roman Joe, after some time, I sort of think I know where you're coming from - though of course I may be mistaken! Anyway, why see "it's a cry of desperation" as the consequence of what you put before, and not "a cry of affirmation" or even only "a cry of the best we have"? Your post sounds as though you want to cling to Christianity out of concern over death, while not being convinced that its claims are true. An alternative is to affirm your limited, mortal, human life, and make it the most it can be, on the assumption that there will not be a second "you" to live a second life.

        In any case, rock on, bro.
        What Joe is trying to avoid, as does Tallis, is the inner Nietzsche to creep up. Because it is his exact nihilism which accepts both of your reformulations as our intellectual duty. However, living in nihilism is, ultimately, impossible. But, and I think Tallis realizes this too, if meaning canĀ“t be grounded within the natural world, then the exact nihilism one tries to avoid is the necessary conclusion one has to draw when clinging onto the naturalistic worldview. It makes secular humanism intellectually untenable, and still clinging to it, dishonest and delusional. Though, of course, I always suspected it to be. I agree with the absurdists, that if this is really all we have and our appaerance is only an accident, then existence really is a cosmic joke.

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        • #5
          Originally posted by Kwlsk View Post

          I agree with the absurdists, that if this is really all we have and our appaerance is only an accident, then existence really is a cosmic joke.
          Joke implies mind. But the naturalist/materialist doesn't posit that behind all reality, there is a higher mind. For us, as Epicurus imagined it, the atoms dance. And that is all.

          You don't need to affirm any cosmic joker. We are only human people. We find and affirm things that are meaningful to us. What may be the case on an unknown galaxy doesn't nullify my affirmation that it is meaningful to seek to live a life of integrity.

          Comment


          • #6
            What I personally find problematic about humanism is the ambiguity and vagueness of the term, secondly, it seems to make well-being and concern of humans as the focus of any theory of good and our obligations. All of which seem problematic and incoherent to me. Humans can't plausibly be said to set ends for themselves rather they serve higher ends and authority that they are obligated to fulfill.

            Comment


            • #7
              Originally posted by ficino View Post

              Joke implies mind. But the naturalist/materialist doesn't posit that behind all reality, there is a higher mind. For us, as Epicurus imagined it, the atoms dance. And that is all.

              You don't need to affirm any cosmic joker. We are only human people. We find and affirm things that are meaningful to us. What may be the case on an unknown galaxy doesn't nullify my affirmation that it is meaningful to seek to live a life of integrity.
              Meaningful in what way? Certainly in no superior way than Nietzsches view that meaning in life means surviving. The wishy-washy "You define your own meaning" secular humanists tend to come up with is a delusion from people not wanting to face the consequences of their own worldview, namely that naturalism entails nihilism (Nagels version is its own category and pretty much the only kind of secularism allowing for a positive view). And as I understand Joe, Tallis realizes this, if one is not able to place objective meaning within the natural world, nihilism becomes unavoidable.

              Comment


              • #8
                Originally posted by Kwlsk View Post

                Meaningful in what way? Certainly in no superior way than Nietzsches view that meaning in life means surviving. The wishy-washy "You define your own meaning" secular humanists tend to come up with is a delusion from people not wanting to face the consequences of their own worldview, namely that naturalism entails nihilism (Nagels version is its own category and pretty much the only kind of secularism allowing for a positive view). And as I understand Joe, Tallis realizes this, if one is not able to place objective meaning within the natural world, nihilism becomes unavoidable.
                I can't prove that I'm not just dumb, but I have never felt much of a weight about nihilism. As Lucretius wrote, it doesn't bother me that I wasn't in existence during the Punic Wars, and so it doesn't bother me that I won't be in existence, say, 50 years from now. I have the same animal fear of the experience of dying that other healthy animals have, but not fear or a sense of hopelessness about being gone. I'm not that special. Meanwhile, there's stuff to do.

                I feel that a lot of people affirm various forms of theism because they are averse to what they see as the consequences of not affirming theism - or, put differently, they reject what they think would be entailed if theism were either false or its truth unknowable. I can't demonstrate that there is not some ground of being "out there," but to think that there is adds little unless that Ground is assimilated to the god of classical theism. And then the other side kicks in, because I at least have come to see our world as explained more consistently w/o theism than in line with it.

                I'm not sure where Tallis was going with this that Joe attributes to him:
                but rather in our gratitude for the self-evident metaphysics we seek to deny,
                Who's seeking to deny truths that to him/her are self-evident? Surely Tallis and/or Joe don't think that people who decline to be theists simply repress the truth because they "just want to sin."

                Comment


                • #9
                  Originally posted by RomanJoe View Post
                  I have been in communication with Raymond Tallis and, surprisingly, he gave me a digital draft of his book Seeing Ourselves before its release a month from now. I have read portions of it so far and I really enjoy it. Its goal is to outline a view of reality that is spiritual yet godless. Like his previous book Logos he puts a large emphasis on the uniqueness of human beings as being qualitatively different from anything else in the universe. We outstrip all other animals, possessing unique intellectual capacities to know and imbue the universe with intentionality and discover its intelligibility. He believes there is an undercurrent of 'disenchantment' which has welled up into a eliminativist fad--claiming a la Stephen Hawking that we are mere toxic sludge floating in a meaningless galaxy lost in a matrix of billions of other galaxies. Tallis retorts that mere toxic sludge could never pronounce such an existential fiat, could never conceptualize and take-in the scope of the universe, could never be anything beyond sludgeness, beyond a viewpointedless being. The mere annunciation of meaningless reveals us to be more than a mere meaningless and insignificant part of a drifting mindless universe.

                  Tallis is a harsh critic of transhumanism, the idea that if we invest our resources into computational technology, we may be able to "upload" our consciousness and live on virtually in some pantheistic net of unified mind-nodes. Even if it were possible to imbue the third-person mindless flecks of metallic hardware with our first-person subjective viewpoints, this would only delay our eventual deaths, it wouldn't cure it. For computers can be smashed and, given the current state of physics, the universe will suffer an eventual heat death and flicker out into an eternal darkness. So Tallis believes a secular humanist, himself one, cannot find consolation in immortality. He doesn't think living on in the memories of others, or leaving some mark on the world, some cultural impact, can ever truly replace a dying notion of a transcendental afterlife and our destiny towards it. The memory of others isn't you, your residual impact on the world isn't you. On secular humanism you cannot cheat the grave, you cannot somehow live beyond it. He also believes that if immortality simple means "living-on" in some post-mortem effect on the world, then men such as Stalin, Hitler, or Ted Bundy have found the sure way to achieve that goal. This also brings in the chilling truth that the secular humanist cannot ensure a reality where sanctity and righteousness is the victor of history--for all we know, in a godless world, evil may have the last word.

                  Tallis concludes his book literally with a statement that he cannot conclude it properly. He doesn't come to some profound revelation regarding the mystery of meaning in a world which seems to be waking up from dreams of the divine into the aching existence of divineless reality. He believes that perhaps the meaningfulness of reality may be found not in our parochial distractions from it (as if the daily pastimes of eating, drinking, or entertainment can cure a creeping nihilism), but rather in our gratitude for the self-evident metaphysics we seek to deny, in our realization that we are beings with a unique nature, with a strange faculty of knowing the universe to its widest margins. And we should peer not just into the literally enchanting nature of our individual rational consciousness, but also backwards down the annals of history, garnering an appreciation for our ancestors who have gifted us with the achievements of this rational consciousness down the millennia--art, religion, music, philosophy, science, etc.

                  Despite this nearly four-hundred page attempt to ground meaning and value into human existence and reality in general, something still disturbs me about secular humanism: death. As Tallis admits himself, immortality, at least for him, isn't a feature of reality. And, in my brief communication with him, he believes his thoughts on this ultimate doom are currently inconclusive. The one thing that I don't think secular humanism can recapture from religion is a cosmic transcendental teleology. Religion offers a narrative for mankind, a sort of self-awareness that involves mankind positioning itself as that which, in the words of Marcus Aurelius "echoes in eternity." Death, for a Christian at least, isn't that which dooms all we do to ash, which sentences all of our achievements, our vices, virtues, etc. to oblivion, it is that which imbues our fleeting existences with meaning. It is death which seals our fates and which sentences us towards our ultimate end or separates us from it. The cosmic teleology of the religious is one which permeates conception and death. It doesn't cease after one dies, it deepens in intensity.

                  Secular humanism may be able to replicate and live-out the virtuous side of religion, but I think the grave, on this view, still renders all of our actions shallow if not futile. And acquiescing to the self-evident thereness of our existential condition (a human history fated for oblivion) only serves to underscore a reality flanked by non-existence. Perhaps, if one is to peer deep enough into a godless world, the only proper solution is to relish in the absurdity of it all. To pronounce that God is dead and, in the same breath, that in the face of it all we should revel in our unique and esoteric nature as rational animals, seems like a cry of desperation.


                  I don't see myself as clinging to any particular religion out of fear of death--that would be bad philosophy. Though fear of annihilation is a strong incentive to believe in a post-mortem existence, and I admit my inclination towards a religious sensibility may be, naturally so, partly due to that. Religion in general, I think, is much more an outgrowth of philosophy than I originally thought. I think revelation is not too far off from theism, with religion, consequently, following from it.


                  Affirmation of finite mortality is also affirmation of annihilation, at least implicitly. One can accept a "yolo" mentality and in the face of death "live and love life to its fullest," or whatever inspirational axiom they look towards. But that doesn't change oblivion, it can't. And the idea that one shouldn't waste a life which is doomed to annihilation has also seemed odd to me. It's a way of viewing life as if, post death, they can look back on it and remark that they lived a good life. But if you are fated to wither out of existence, whether or not you lived as a saint or a sadist, your venture ends at the grave. It ultimately doesn't matter, your end is the same. I'm sure maybe after 87 years you can think to yourself, I was a damn good person who lived a damn good life. But why should that matter? After life slips from you there is no you. Good life or not, there is no fulfilling experience of reminiscing in it.


                  Now one may retort that this is precisely why one should aim to live a good life, because there is no eternity. But the brevity of life doesn't matter if conscious experience ends at death. There is no brevity after death. There is no reflection on it. There is no difference between the person who live 102 years and the one who lived 10--they both are no longer in existence, there is no concept of either the tragedy or the beauty of their lives. There's just the cold indifference of absence.
                  Last edited by RomanJoe; 10-06-2019, 09:21 PM.

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                  • #10
                    Originally posted by ficino View Post

                    I can't prove that I'm not just dumb, but I have never felt much of a weight about nihilism. As Lucretius wrote, it doesn't bother me that I wasn't in existence during the Punic Wars, and so it doesn't bother me that I won't be in existence, say, 50 years from now. I have the same animal fear of the experience of dying that other healthy animals have, but not fear or a sense of hopelessness about being gone. I'm not that special. Meanwhile, there's stuff to do.

                    I feel that a lot of people affirm various forms of theism because they are averse to what they see as the consequences of not affirming theism - or, put differently, they reject what they think would be entailed if theism were either false or its truth unknowable. I can't demonstrate that there is not some ground of being "out there," but to think that there is adds little unless that Ground is assimilated to the god of classical theism. And then the other side kicks in, because I at least have come to see our world as explained more consistently w/o theism than in line with it.

                    I'm not sure where Tallis was going with this that Joe attributes to him: Who's seeking to deny truths that to him/her are self-evident? Surely Tallis and/or Joe don't think that people who decline to be theists simply repress the truth because they "just want to sin."
                    There are many factors why one may deny the unity of self, or the existence of conscious experience. I mean anti-realist opinions for a number of seemingly "common-sense" metaphysical notions are not uncommon. I think that's a mischaracterization of the point being made there. No one thinks people deny a realist metaphysics and epistemology out of some pernicious urge to sin. The point being made was that, at least on Tallis' form of humanism, we should ground a meaningful existence in a sort of self-wonderment of ourselves being creatures strangely endowed with a mind that outstrips any normal animal mind. The quote in context:

                    "He believes that perhaps the meaningfulness of reality may be found not in our parochial distractions from it (as if the daily pastimes of eating, drinking, or entertainment can cure a creeping nihilism), but rather in our gratitude for the self-evident metaphysics we seek to deny, in our realization that we are beings with a unique nature, with a strange faculty of knowing the universe to its widest margins. And we should peer not just into the literally enchanting nature of our individual rational consciousness, but also backwards down the annals of history, garnering an appreciation for our ancestors who have gifted us with the achievements of this rational consciousness down the millennia--art, religion, music, philosophy, science, etc."
                    Last edited by RomanJoe; 10-06-2019, 09:10 PM.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by ficino View Post

                      I can't prove that I'm not just dumb, but I have never felt much of a weight about nihilism. As Lucretius wrote, it doesn't bother me that I wasn't in existence during the Punic Wars, and so it doesn't bother me that I won't be in existence, say, 50 years from now. I have the same animal fear of the experience of dying that other healthy animals have, but not fear or a sense of hopelessness about being gone. I'm not that special. Meanwhile, there's stuff to do.

                      I feel that a lot of people affirm various forms of theism because they are averse to what they see as the consequences of not affirming theism - or, put differently, they reject what they think would be entailed if theism were either false or its truth unknowable. I can't demonstrate that there is not some ground of being "out there," but to think that there is adds little unless that Ground is assimilated to the god of classical theism. And then the other side kicks in, because I at least have come to see our world as explained more consistently w/o theism than in line with it.

                      I'm not sure where Tallis was going with this that Joe attributes to him: Who's seeking to deny truths that to him/her are self-evident? Surely Tallis and/or Joe don't think that people who decline to be theists simply repress the truth because they "just want to sin."
                      Nihilism goes further, as it is the denial of any kind of value. As rational and spiritual beings the complete denial of value realism proves to be an unlivable option for the vast majority of the world. Why you don't see it that way I don't know, though I suspect you just don't live that way, you attach meaning to the people and objects in your life. Thus, I'd say provocatively, you live in an illusion, which, once sorted out and reflected upon will put us in Nietzsches boat at the end. A full blown nihilism doesnt provide existential happiness or anything beyond short temporal pleasure. Once that is rigorously applied, it becomes apparent quickly, that this life doesn't fit with human nature. This should provide at least suspicion if the metaphysical concepts the nihilism is grounded in, can really be true.
                      Your second paragraph misses the point, as it assumes that the classical theist merely ascribes the attributes associated with the divine, rather than deriving it from what that ground of being/necessary being/first cause would have to be. Of course the rejection of theism has consequences I'm not fond of, but that include intellectual topics, like the explanation of mind, rationality, intentionality, contingency or emergence, all of which the naturalistic metaphysician fails to give a decent explanation for. The copout in refering to brute facts give me enough reason to say that naturalism is untenable.

                      In regards to your last paragraph, the denial of self-evident truths is constantly found within contempirary literature. The best example is the ludicrous idea that the mental can be reduced to the material. Or that brain states itself can have intentionality/aboutness

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                      • #12
                        Originally posted by Kwlsk View Post

                        Nihilism goes further, as it is the denial of any kind of value. As rational and spiritual beings the complete denial of value realism proves to be an unlivable option for the vast majority of the world. Why you don't see it that way I don't know, though I suspect you just don't live that way, you attach meaning to the people and objects in your life. Thus, I'd say provocatively, you live in an illusion, which, once sorted out and reflected upon will put us in Nietzsches boat at the end. A full blown nihilism doesnt provide existential happiness or anything beyond short temporal pleasure. Once that is rigorously applied, it becomes apparent quickly, that this life doesn't fit with human nature. This should provide at least suspicion if the metaphysical concepts the nihilism is grounded in, can really be true.
                        I think nihilism can be pretty dangerous if a person tries to embrace it seriously. The YouTube apologist David Wood comes to mind, trying to kill his dad with a hammer because of developing a burning hatred for all forms of authority. I used to read a lot of Cioran when I was younger and could see how something like this might happen. Cioran himself said that he could put up with living as long as he believed there might be new forms of suffering to experience and that suicide was always an easily available option. Also he was a talented writer and could live on his own terms at a remove from the rest of society.

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                        • #13
                          Originally posted by ficino View Post

                          Surely Tallis and/or Joe don't think that people who decline to be theists simply repress the truth because they "just want to sin."
                          Living out nihilism this is the kind of thing you would want to believe, that their motives are at best impure.

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