Monday, June 20, 2016

A little teaser from the book

There’s a scene in Unforgiven in which Gene Hackman’s character is lying on the floor of a saloon after already being shot, begging for his life with Clint Eastwood’s character pointing a shotgun in his face. Hackman’s character says, “I don’t deserve this … to die like this. I was building a house.” Eastwood’s character replies, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” Then shoots Hackman’s character in the face.

This captures in miniature the human condition. Each of us believes there’s something special about our case when confronted by reality’s hard corners and life’s rough edges. We beg, we plead, we bargain in the name of God, fairness, morality, and rationality. If we do exactly this, that, and some other thing, then Reality and Life will reciprocate. In truth, our fates singly and in aggregate are a matter of complete indifference to all of existence and to most other members of our species, the major exceptions being ourselves and those few closest to us, and sometimes not even to them.

Most atheists, rationalists and humanists disavow belief in God but still secretly believe that their playing at ruthless honesty and cold logic (somehow) means that if they do the right thing, then the universe will reciprocate in some way, as if steely-eyed truthfulness might be a sufficient bulwark against untold millennia upon untold millennia of genetic and cultural selection. The deepest and most evasive cognitive bias of the human animal may very well be that overwhelming power can be bargained with even though the poor beast never had anything of value to bargain with in the first place.

This might seem unduly pessimistic and dispiriting to some. I find comfort in it. We humans owe our existence neither to some hidden god nor to anything else. There is no god and no law of history to interfere with being human. The really interesting question is not “what may I hope for?” (Kant’s Third Question), but what kind of human being could not merely survive another day or two, but needs just such a world in order to thrive and be at home in the world?

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