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Resolutions: What’s the Point? – 2

January 11, 2020 - Saturday 4:01 AM by E.R. Nartatez

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I recently read an article on neuroscience purportedly explaining (‘explain away’ is a better way of putting it) what we’ve always considered unique human capacities and qualities, as neither unique nor special. 

Ephrat Livni (in ‘Feeling anxious? It’s not just you, it’s our philosophical era of neuroexistentialism’) writes that brain science says that “being human is no big deal. We’re just animals, complex biological systems operating according to the laws of nature… we have no soul, no fixed self, and no inherent purpose. We exist simply because we exist, tiny specks on a small planet in an infinite universe.” 

Unsurprisingly, this human-deflating revelation “leaves many people feeling deeply uneasy—consciously or unconsciously—and casting about for meaning.” This is the modern malaise of “neuroexistentialism," a crisis of meaninglessness that causally contributes to the rise of “suicide, depression, and anxiety.”

Eminent philosopher Roger Scruton described this talk as “neuritis," or “neuromania” say Peter Hacker, a philosopher specializing in this topic. 

I’ve engaged the article in the context of the annual ritual of making New Year resolutions (NYR hereafter). This is the second of a two-part article.

The making of NYR has definitely fallen on hard times; hardly anyone takes it seriously anymore. But as I’ve argued, this ritual reveals something deeply important about us as a species: we’re creatures that crave for meaning and significance, and the practice of making of NYR gives evidence to this. We make—or feel the need and the urge to—NYR because we believe, consciously or unconsciously, that our lives indeed have meaning and significance and that our actions do matter. 

But this is exactly what’s threatened by “neuroexistentialism” (the intellectual virus of neuritis, or the mental disease of neuromania, take your pick). Meaning and significance are ultimately illusions, delusions concocted by the brain. 

‘Meh.’ I can imagine Solomon reacting. ‘I said this a long time ago.’

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” 

says the Teacher.

“Utterly meaningless!

Everything is meaningless.”

 

What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? (A rhetorical question; the expected answer is, ‘Nada.’)

(Ecclesiastes 1:2-3, NIV)

 

What are we to do then? Listen to the experts, the new priests of modernity, like behavioral scientist Clay Rutledge; “In order to keep existential anxiety at bay, we must find and maintain perceptions of our lives as meaningful… It is when people are not able to maintain meaning that they are most psychologically vulnerable.” 

Let me get this right; experts now say human life is no more special than a gnat (in the ultimate scheme of things), and life and the universe are at bottom without meaning and significance. And they’re aware that this creates “existential anxiety." But they tell us that somehow, “we must find and maintain perceptions of our lives as meaningful.” Like, “maintain” holding on to things they say are lies? Continue to live under what they say are illusory “perceptions” of meaning? Hmm. Something’s fishy here Doc.

C.S. Lewis, incisively perceived the absurdity of this modernist proposal—

“Such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive,’ or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity.’ in a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

“It’s all good,” experts assure us. Livni cites a new book (‘Neuroexistentialism: Meaning, Morals and Purpose in the Age of Neuroscience’) authored by modernist “scientists and philosophers,” offering answers to “the question of being human and… why we might try to be good and live purposefully… integrating evidence-based science into society’s psychology.”

So, scientists and philosophers are now the new preachers, life-experts telling everyone what “meaning” and “purpose” we can find in life? (Stephen Hawking limited the new meritocracy to the scientific class alone; he famously declared, “philosophy is dead.”)

But then a nagging question presses on my mind; if what these experts say is true, why should I even bother? Why should I “try to be good and live purposefully”? What is “good”? Who says what is “good”? Is there even a real “good”? Or a real “evil”? Or are these categories simply concocted by the modern elites (the “Conditioners” as Lewis called them) imposed on the rest of us, impressing upon us their own image (or how, in their “expert” estimate, should things be)? What compelling reason do I choose “good” and reject “evil” if I like the evil (and I can get away with it)?

If these modern experts are correct, how then do I absolutely condemn the likes of Jeffrey Lionel Dahmer (the Milwaukee Cannibal, serial rapist and killer, victimized 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991, committing necrophilia, cannibalism and the permanent preservation of body parts of his victims) as raw, absolute evil? 

In a 1996 documentary his father described Jeffrey’s logic, “If it all happens naturalistically, what’s the need for a God? Can’t I set my own rules? Who owns me? I own myself.” And in an earlier interview, Jeffrey said that if there’s nothing beyond the world of nature, and that God—the personal God of Judeo-Christian faith—does not exists and that humans just all came “from the slime,” then logically, “what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges?”

We condemn what he did. But then if reality simply boils down to “atoms and the void” (said Democritus, Greek atomist philosopher), then the best argument we have against Dahmer is that his actions were simply unfashionable. But somehow, we know that this judgment is utterly inadequate—Dahmer’s actions were pure evil deserving damnation!

Come, come now, say modernist expert Michael Gazzaniga (cognitive neuroscientist), “there’s no problem presented by the naturalist view of humanity,” because “our brains have evolved capabilities that allow us to be” moral. The operative word here is “allow." Evolution has “allowed”—not made—us into essentially moral beings.

Sure. But the undirected, mechanical, material processes of evolution do not necessarily guarantee the production of the moral and ethical values we now hold, e.g., individual freedom and sovereignty, inviolable rights and dignity for all (values dominating Western civilization for millennia). It can also develop into other kinds of morality, e.g., Heinrich Himmler’s Nazi morality, Or Mao’s, or Stalin’s, or Pol Pot’s. 

Nietzsche lambasted the intellectual elites of his day; (summarizing) ‘You’re proud of yourselves for killing God. But do you really know what God’s death means? If God (Judeo-Christian thought) is dead, then why do you keep feeding on His corpse to sustain your morality? You’re nothing but a bunch of hypocrites! If you give up on God. you must also give up ALL talk of morality! You can’t have your cake and eat it too.’

Recently Tom Holland (award-winning secular historian) and Jordan Peterson (clinical psychologist, social critic) have echoed Nietzsche’s critique against these modernist intellectuals.

Back to NYR. When a new year dawns, we feel the urge to start anew, to shed off dead skin, to leave behind bad habits and develop good ones. Sadly, we often fail. Yet this urge never goes away. At the core of this is the fact that essentially, we’re creatures—and creatures who believe—that life has meaning, and that our lives and actions do matter and have significance. And that somehow, we have this sense that this matters to the universe—to God.

“And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:5)

JPeterson explains this here: https://youtu.be/wwi9Q9apHGI.

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