A Worldview, from My Book-to-Be
8. A Peek Ahead: Putting A Nontheistic Worldview Into Practice
“Try to believe what’s true but not what’s false. Distinguish between the two by observing the world, thereby learning facts about it; formulate beliefs about the world corresponding to the facts observed. Among those facts, notice patterns and regularities, and on that basis arrive at further, more general beliefs about the world, drawing conclusions about it by methods of deductive and inductive inference that reliably yield true (or probable) conclusions from true (or probable) premises, making those conclusions themselves as reliable as the facts from which they are inferred. Conditional upon whatever basic epistemic and metaphysical assumptions you have made foundational (e.g., the assumption that your basic thought processes are at least reasonably reliable, enabling you to trust your own conclusions, and the assumption that there is an objectively existing reality of which your senses give you reasonably reliable information, enabling you to make ordinary knowledge claims about lions and tigers and tables and chairs and apples and oranges), and based upon the observations you have made and the inferences you have drawn, form a mental real-world world-model—a picture of the world and a conception of how the world works—a mental model of metaphysical reality.
“Do not be afraid to say, ‘I don’t know,’ when confronted by a phenomenon whose explanation you do not, in fact, know; do not feel compelled to supply a purely speculative explanation instead, simply to have something to believe. Beyond whatever foundational epistemic and metaphysical assumptions you have adopted out of functional necessity, do not believe what you have no good reason to believe, but instead withhold belief until you do have good reason, precisely because it is the having of good reasons—good evidence or sound argumentation or a combination of the two—that enables us to distinguish between true statements and false ones. Understand that mere conceivability is not good reason for belief, and that a speculative explanation is not lent the slightest support by being consistently conceivable. Understand that although not knowing might well spur one to further investigation of an unexplained phenomenon, ‘I don’t know’ is a perfectly good answer when one is asked for that phenomenon’s explanation before he has gathered supporting reason sufficient to make a particular explanation rationally compelling.
“Recognize that the methods of science are those of careful, extensive observation, the noting of observed patterns and regularities, the drawing of inferences therefrom and the repeated testing of those inferences, the imagining of explanations consistent with the observed facts and with the observed patterns and regularities, and the rigorous testing of those explanations of the observed facts and of their observed patterns and regularities—the rigorous testing of scientific theories—resulting in the intersubjective construction of a more accurate, more precise, more detailed real-world world-model than any one of us alone could construct. Recognize that the scientific real-world world-model is, therefore, the best we have available, and that although science can get things wrong, that’s really not the way to bet—recognize that we should accept the well-established scientific consensus on a subject until such time as the consensus changes, because the methods of science are the best we have for distinguishing true beliefs from false ones. (Of course, cutting-edge scientific speculation is not the same as well-established science, since it has not yet been rigorously tested; unlike our belief in well-established scientific observations and results, whatever belief we might have in cutting-edge scientific speculation must be regarded as highly provisional.) Recognize that any individual’s knowledge is only a small fraction of what scientists have learned about the world—in a nutshell, ‘science knows more than I do, and more than you do, and more than any one of us does,’ and we should respect the consensus of well-established science as our best description of the world, even while continuing to subject it to close scrutiny and to emendation wherever necessary.
“Do what is constructive, not only because the results for you are generally preferable to the results of doing what is destructive but also because it is generally more conducive to the welfare of your fellows. Be kind, not only because how you treat others affects how they treat you and because it can be shown game-theoretically that a fair degree of cooperation and mutual helpfulness is the best bet for yielding the optimal outcome for you as a member of society (as well as for other members of society), but also out of compassion. Love thy neighbor, not only because that’s how you want other people to treat you and because by so behaving you contribute to the following of a rule which when followed by everyone ultimately tends to redound to your benefit, but also because you accept that other people have thoughts and feelings, too—that other people care about how they are treated, too—and because being kind to other beings who care about how they are treated is what creatures who have the capacity for compassion and empathy do, whether commanded to by anyone else or not (although it must be admitted that human beings do have an appalling capacity to behave without compassion or empathy when commanded to behave without them). Understand that compassion demands that we make the fundamental value judgment that thinking, feeling beings should be treated as though they had intrinsic moral worth, even though moral worth is not an objective feature of the universe but is instead only subjectively assigned by sentient beings, and know that the societywide assignment of intrinsic moral worth to everyone would suffice to make such worth objective for practical purposes.
“Understand both that we are beings who want to pursue our own ends as we see fit, free from harm from others and free from undue interference from others, and that we live in society and must therefore accept the restriction upon our pursuit of our ends as we see fit that we neither harm others nor unduly interfere with others’ pursuits of their own ends as they see fit if we expect to retain our freedom to do as we please. Know that because we want others to accept the same restrictions, it is generally in our interest to be moral; and know that because we view others as though they had intrinsic moral worth, we are obliged to accept the responsibility of being moral. Understand that we accept the strictures imposed on us by living in society with our fellows—with other thinking, feeling beings—but that within the bounds set by the requirements of morality, we are free to do as we please—or should be allowed to be—when there is no good reason to restrict that freedom.
“Realize that without supposing our lives to have any eternal, cosmic meaning, our lives matter to us while we are living them. We are able to feel pleasure and we are able to feel pain; we are able to feel happiness and we are able to feel unhappiness; we are able to feel content and we are able to feel discontent. Without supposing our feelings of pleasure or happiness or contentment to have any eternal, cosmic meaning beyond their importance to us as we live our lives, our happiness matters to us while we are experiencing it. Doing that which brings us pleasure rather than pain is important to us; doing that which brings us happiness rather than unhappiness is important to us; doing that which makes us feel content rather than discontent is important to us. Because we recognize other people’s pleasure and happiness and contentment as important to them, and because we are creatures having the capacity for empathy and compassion, not only will we find activities that bring pleasure or happiness or contentment to us meaningful but we can also find activities that bring pleasure or happiness or contentment to others meaningful (especially when those others are ones we hold near and dear). Realize that without supposing the satisfaction of our desires to have any eternal, cosmic meaning, the satisfaction of those desires matters to us, and that we will find activities that satisfy our desires meaningful. Because we recognize other people’s desires as important to them, and because we are compassionate creatures, we are also able to find activities that satisfy other people’s desires meaningful and to see social policies that increase not only our own but other people’s welfare as important—we are able to adopt such a maxim as ‘Love thy neighbor.’ And our sense of personal meaningfulness suffices to supply us with a sense of purpose—our own desires and our own values determine for us the aims we find worthwhile, and our own finding of those aims worthwhile supplies us with purpose in life.
“Realize, then, that meaning is the wrong sort of thing to inhere in the universe. Meaning is always meaning to someone; meaning is always meaning to an experiencer of consciousness while he is experiencing consciousness. My life has meaning to me, and to each of my friends, and to each of those whom I hold near and dear; your life has meaning to you, and to each of your friends, and to each of those who hold you near and dear. Those are the myriad ‘meanings of life’—the meanings of lives to conscious experiencers.
“Accept, sadly, that there is no good reason to suppose that our consciousness survives death, and that there is some good reason to think that it does not. If our consciousness ceases forever upon our deaths, that is an immeasurably tragic fact. But we should not lie to ourselves in order to avoid recognizing its likelihood; we should instead face it and learn to live our lives while accepting it. Yet, that fact—assuming it to be a fact—does not render life hopeless or meaningless or devoid of purpose. The individual makes his own meaning; the individual chooses his own purpose. This is true even of religious people, who choose the purpose of serving an imagined God who might not actually exist—who suppose their imagined God to have a purpose for them and who suppose they know what that purpose is and who then choose to adopt that purpose for themselves. The individual is free to choose what he will view as the purpose of his life as he wishes: to rear children who grow into good, decent, caring adults; to love his spouse; to help the homeless and feed the hungry and build a better society; to enjoy smiling and laughing with his friends; to build a better mousetrap or to play the perfect game of chess or to paint a beautiful painting or to compose a delightful song. Embrace this ultimate existential freedom: choose to see yourself as you wish—choose to think of as important whatever you want to think of as important. It is not merely life but the living of life that is meaningful. Pursue the ends you find important, and your life will matter to you.
“Know that we are not mindless robots, but are instead thinking, feeling, sensing, remembering, imagining, hoping, dreaming experiencers—we are endowed with awareness and mentality. That is what enables us to care about anything at all, and that is what makes it possible for anything at all to be meaningful to us, and that is what is precious. If anything is sacred, it is being a conscious experiencer, and it is the welfare of conscious experiencers that is of the highest importance. Hallow consciousness.”