Smuggling meaning into a Godless universe


mRio / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

This recent blog post by a science writer at NPR insists that “We Don’t Need To Be Created To Be Relevant.” Here is how author Marcelo Gleiser frames relevance:

“For many people, the thought of being the result of mere accident is a nonstarter. They think that to be relevant we must have been created in some fashion. After all, the word accident usually denotes something bad. Chance is a better (but not perfect) word: We are the product of chance.”

Who or what are we supposed to be relevant to? Gleiser simply does not say. What he does do is subsequently expound on the mystery of biological life, reasoning that if intelligence is not necessary for life to dominate the Earth, then we are special.

Along the way, he punches the God of the gaps strawman, characterizing it as “a dangerous way to believe, given that science does advance and gaps do get squeezed away.” Its inclusion strikes me as odd; intelligence is a property of minds, things that science can’t induct into its material account of the world.

Consider the thoughts your mind produces: first-person, unified, subjective experiences which you can identify as being about things. A scientist cannot access these real phenomena directly; only you enjoy the privileged position that allows you to directly know and report what your mind thinks about. Science is principally incapable of describing the content of thoughts. Methaphysics, philosophy, and human language are needed. This is not God of the gaps, but simply what is beyond science’s purview.

Likewise, relevance, if it refers at all to the classical questions of ultimate meaning, value, and purpose, is illicit to science. The fact-value split initiated by eighteenth century thinker David Hume–and continued by the twentieth century developments of verificationism, noncognitive emotivism, and eliminative materialism–establishes that in a closed, material cosmos, there is no real value to anything, not even life itself. There is no “formal relation” between facts as they are, and values pointing to how the facts ought to be. You can’t get an ought from an is. No intrinsic worth, or ultimate significance. The rareness or infinitesimally unlikelihood of intelligent life is a quantitative measure that will not translate to the quality of being special or relevant.

In this world, roses are not red, and the sweetness of a salty summer sea breeze is an illusion of consciousness. Carl Sagan’s beloved pale blue dot holds no worth. Why pretend that it does? Bertrand Russell provides logically consistent advice for us when divinity does not partake in our cosmos: “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

But perhaps, this drab, desolate conception of reality is mistaken. Think about it.

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Hackers, Pirates, Brats

The Afghanistan Wikileaks story has gotten progressively more interesting in the weeks since it broke.  Initial critics rightfully blasted Julian Assange’s outfit for endangering the lives of those who have collaborated with NATO forces.  When prompted in a July 28th  interview by Today‘s Merideth Vieira, the Australian-born Assange admitted (to his credit) the possibility that further killing could result from his leak campaign.   So in an effort to save lives from American “murder,” as Wikileaks alleged in their famous Apache helicopter video from earlier this year, the once prodigy hacker and his crew have wrecklessly endangered the lives of others.

The leaks also have the secondary effect of making cooperation with American forces less appealing to any potential partners in future conflicts.  For this, some observers have concluded that Wikileaks is basically an enemy of the United States.  Its no coincidence that Iceland happens to be a base for the site or that Pirate Bay, Sweden’s ridiculous information liberators, have extended a hand of complicity to securely host the leak documents.  It would seem silly to think that Scandinavians have been conspiring in enmity against America, but such a postulation is not far off the mark.  In terms of international relations theory, these countries are known as freeriders.  Iceland is a quintessential case.  During the Cold War, America operated bases there and since that time, Iceland’s military has been virtually nonexistent.  So its not surprising that there has come to be such contempt for the military, or the idea that outside of their sheltered paradise, there exists a brutal world that sometimes necessitates the use of force.

Swedish pirates and Icelandic scofflaws are just the tip of the iceberg of today’s self-indulgent wannabe hacker heroes.  Recall the modern day anarchist, who instead of hurling a bomb like a good nineteenth century revolutionary, thanked today’s finest industrialist by hurling a pie in his face.  This was the case for Bill Gates when he visted Belgium in 1998.  So if you aspire to invent new technologies, increase worker productivity, and bless humanity by single-handedly launching an information revolution, not only will governments seek to double tax your earnings and capital gains, you should also expect occasional vollies of pie as your just dessert.  While Assange aspires to liberate secrets from the vaults of the state, those like Pirate Bay seek to terminate copyrights and all intellectual property protections.  To these starry-eyed warrior geeks, no secret is worth keeping, and all information should be freely accessible.  But if we compelled all computer code to be open-source or all pharmaceuticals researchers to immediately disclose their formulas, the only ones who would produce these goods for us would be the spoiled hacker types who do this stuff on their spare time.  They have no comprehension of economic utility or value, or their necessary relationship to work and sacrifice.

Perhaps these hacker pirates are best seen as little leather-clad Neos who feel they have moral license to run around with their figurative guns blazing, reducing Agent Smith’s marble lobby to flying chips and plaster.  In a top-notch piece by the Christian Science Monitor, former CIA officer Jerrold Post explains that the same psychological motivations of spies holds true for the Afghanistan Wikileakers.  While some people betray secrets for money or sex, others are motivated by ideology or ego.  And whether we consider the American private who initiated the leak or Assange and Pirate Bay who obliged, its the confluence of ideology and ego that satisfies these bored, ungrateful, uncomprehending brats in their quest for significance and belonging.  How sad it is that so much energy and talent of youth are poured into counterproductive and downright dangerous channels.

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