Determinism, Naturalism, God and Meaning

Determinism, Naturalism, God and Meaning December 15, 2018

I recently posted a piece about knowledge and meaning and is regular Christian commenter posted this, with my original words in italics:

I would far rather take the time and effort to analyse and evaluate life and existence to create my own meaning rather than have to receive someone else’s meaning and take it as my own.

You’re a determinist. You must believe the universe imposes even your “own meaning” upon you. Why this is less objectionable to you than God imposing meaning upon you is a mystery.

when we are forgetting about deeper philosophy, we live our lives as though we have it.

So you live a contradiction? This is a damning indictment of naturalist philosophy. A real philosopher, meaning a real lover of wisdom, integrates his philosophy into all aspects of life.

There is no doubt that determinism can offer some particularly tricky ramifications for philosophers and philosophy. It is actually why I think many philosophers prefer the label of compatibilist and compatibilism because it sort of shies away from having to deal with some of these issues, even though it really doesn’t!

I don’t particularly like the term “imposes” here because it implies that the universe has some kind of agency, which it doesn’t. But there is no doubt that the entirety of the universe is causally determinant of my own agency, situation and choices. Although I author these “choices”, and feel as if I am an agent with causal efficacy over such choices, I know as a determinist that this can be murky waters.

I think that the act of someone, irrespective of free will, working towards finding their own meaning is a more worthy process than merely being victim to the demands of a third party. But as mentioned in the original piece, it is not even the meaning of God, necessarily, but the meaning imposed by other believers and interpreters of the holy book or Christian philosophy. Perhaps it is the meaning that the individual themselves constructs from the Bible and other religious experiences and sources; yet there is still this notion of a third party imposing meaning or purpose.

As for the final comment, it is not at all a damning indictment, but an argument for philosophical pragmatism. It is also a reflection of the tension between psychology and philosophy. Take the trolley problem; we know that 89% of people would pull the lever to save five people and kill one: rationally. However, intuitively, when faced with the same calculation but requiring the agent to push a person off the bridge to bring about this consequence, the percentage is reversed. Psychology has other things to say about otherwise cold, rational deliberation.

I try to live my life in the knowledge that we have no libertarian free will. It underwrites my opinions on crime and punishment, and much of my political philosophy, amongst other things. When making split-second decisions that involve praise and blame, I often resort to in-built psychological urges. I try and train myself away from them where they are not ultimately beneficial, but even then, it’s a case of trying to consequentially weigh up the pros and cons of  those reactive attitudes.

In other words, there are different philosophies at play here and so “A real philosopher, meaning a real lover of wisdom, integrates his philosophy into all aspects of life” is a little too simplistic.

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