Sneering at the transcendent

Another aggressive Brit atheist at National Review Online: the empty-headed, empty-souled Andrew Stuttaford. You won’t believe the vicious, Dawkins-worthy comment he makes here.

[W]hy humanity has to have a “purpose” escapes me. We just are. As for human dignity being grounded “in transcendent truth,” well, lets say that I feel a sneeze coming on.

At the same time, Stuttaford is only spelling out the implicit attitude toward life, the contempt for the higher, that we’ve seen in innumerable posts by Jonah Goldberg and John Derbyshire. Also, Richard Brookhiser made a quietly contemptuous remark about religion recently which I will be discussing.

If National Review keeps allowing statements like this to be published in its pages, it’s time for it go out of existence.

I wonder how many NR readers will demand that NR not print further comments of this nature.

Update: Derbyshire, proving my point, agrees with Stuttaford.

By the way, I didn’t mean to suggest that Goldberg is an atheist. I was referring to his entire attitude of vulgarity and of contempt for the higher which he has expressed in innumerable ways over the years. People—and cultures—are not defined only by their explicit statements of belief, but by the attitudes to life that they project.

- end of initial entry -

(March 21 1 a.m.) I was away all day and am just getting around to posting comments now.

Sage McLaughlin writes

I was wondering whether there would be any substantive and immediate objection to Stuttaford and Derbyshire’s substitution of non-sequiturs, straw men, and sniffing hauteur for argument. Of course, the only thing we get is a limp joke from KJL that this is “just another Holy Thursday on the Corner.”

Well, you’ve got that right, sister.

Perhaps at some point someone will offer something in the way of a refutation (inasmuch as it’s possible to “refute” such stupidities), but my guess is that it will be something banal. Maybe I’m wrong. We’ll see.

LA replies:

You don’t refute statements like those; you prohibit them.

And K-Lo’s response is exactly what I expected of her.

LA continues:

More precisely: you expel the people who make them.

Sage M. replies:

“I wonder how the editors at NR could go about prohibiting such statements, though. The easiest way would be never to hire or retain such people in the first place.”

That’s the text of an email response I was just working on, but I see you’ve sort of come up with the same answer. Preserving NR’s identity as a meaningfully conservative institution has become a tertiary concern of its staff. Were it not so influential, it wouldn’t matter much. But my landlord/roommate, who is an utterly irreligious, materialist, radically skeptical libertarian, feels more at home with that magazine (to which he subscribes) than I do.

Sebastian writes:

Derbyshire’s use of mathematical equations to disprove transcendence in the face of competing religious claims is tiresome, shallow and pretentious. Why not 2+2=4; that’s all he means to say? One can just as easily infer the truth of transcendence through the multiplicity of religious claims. This was Aristotle’s point about competing views of the good life: they don’t prove there is no such thing but rather point to the thing itself and our need to keep looking and asking—or so have opined men with far greater maths skills than Derbyshire.

I grew suspicious of Derbyshire when I came across his personal website filled with family photos and stories of his children. The whole thing struck me as undignified and very self-involved. His essays about walking his dog in suburbia or his fear of black men outside Lincoln Center leave me cold. Yes, he does talk about race in a forthright manner. But his materialism makes me suspect his racialist views are reductionist and of an ugly or demeaning variety, stripped as they must be of Christian charity and its emphasis on a common humanity. I can’t imagine his being a very inviting or warm home. I would expect a quiz over dinner testing my maths.

Kristor writes:

Stuttaford writes, ” … why humanity has to have a “purpose” escapes me. We just are.” If there is no purpose to our existence, then no argument for taking trouble to preserve or continue our existence can be mounted, and we might just as well not exist. Meaning that Stuttaford can have no possible rational objection to his own murder.

It goes deeper. If we have no purpose, in what sense could it be meaningful to say that anything—such as our own early demise—would be problematic, should it come to pass? “Problem,” “difficulty,” “pain,” “sorrow,” “failure,” “evil,” “ugliness:” these terms have meaning only in respect to some purpose, to a desire that some valuable state of affairs should be achieved. So likewise with, “solution,” “success,” “beauty,” “pleasure,” “joy,” “satisfaction,” “happiness,” “contentment.” None of these ideas can mean anything if we have no purposes; they must, rather, be just empty, mere noise. But these concepts are crucial to life; life is the actualization of these ideas, for experience is per se ineluctably more or less valuable, more or less enjoyable. If there is really no purpose to life, if everything we are is just dead pebbles hurrying pointlessly about, then how could we come to feel any preference for existing, rather than ceasing to exist? How could one experience something that was devoid of information?

If Stuttaford is right, he can’t care about anything, can’t enjoy or suffer anything. If he does feel care, or pleasure, or pain, he must be the victim of an illusion. But if there is no such thing really as pleasure, then how can even an illusion thereof come to pass?

It goes even deeper. To say of something that it just is, is to say that it has no sufficient reason for existing, no cause. What has no cause cannot be explained. If Stuttaford is right that we merely are, then nothing about human existence is susceptible of explanation, and he can therefore have nothing reasonable to say. So if he is correct, we are all justified in ignoring the empty meaningless noise he spews forth.

I have taken the trouble to comment on his statement only because he is wrong, and therefore—because there are purposes to our lives, and to the life of the world—some things are really important and good, and we are really justified in deeming them worthy. Among them are human beings. Stuttaford’s metaphysical error has already wrought catastrophic damage upon history; think how much wealthier we would all be, how many more people would now be living, working, creating, and loving, if atheist socialism had never arisen. Stuttaford’s nihilism opens a bit wider the already yawning door that leads to mass murder. It must be stopped. It must be revealed as a sophistical demonic lie. If possible, Stuttaford himself must be disabused of it, and rescued from his error, not just for the sake of his soul, but because, having real purposes, he can and does have something meaningful to say, and can therefore usefully contribute, or not, to the life of the West, and of the world. Despite what he says to the contrary, Stuttaford is more than a meaningless chaos. He matters.

Harry Horse writes:

“As for human dignity being grounded ‘in transcendent truth,’ well, lets say that I feel a sneeze coming on.”

You sneer in arrogance towards something you are unwilling, or are incapable of understanding; something that has sacrificed much, and returned the results a thousand-fold; something that is at the very core of Western Man’s raison d’etre, for without you would be shaking an emaciated fist and bemoaning your lot, while trading in hard labor or wampum, for your family’s bowl of rice. It is something that asks absolutely nothing of you, but gives absolutely everything that is relevant and separable from the beasts.

Those of us that answer to a much higher calling are growing very tired of an entitled and immodest society which has bestowed validity to opinion that is independent of merit. This is the daily voice of the callow citizen who is unaware of his acceptance of the premises of liberalism.

If you weren’t a liberal, you would be ashamed of what you have written. Even more disappointing, you comment on the eve prior to the Ultimate Ransom. And what did you profit, having gained the whole world, in your exchange?

George R. writes:

It seems to me that John Derbyshire makes a rather reasoned objection. How would you respond to it?

Gintas writes:

So goes William Buckley the Great’s legacy, his magazine is pumping the bilges of a dying West.

The folks who mourn Clarke’s death are the techno-geeks, the computer nerds, shallow materialists who think Rand hung the moon, science fiction is Great Literature, and the iPod and similar gadgetry is revolutionary progress.

Hal K. writes:

In reference to the Reihan Salam quote from the Andrew Stuttaford comment, it is a matter of faith whether one believes that a true example of human-like artificial intelligence like HAL could ever exist. The burden of proof is on those who believe that it is possible. I tend to think that it is not possible, but this is a matter of intuition. Centuries from now, I wonder what the effect will be on people’s philosophical and spiritual outlooks if human ingenuity still hasn’t succeeded in creating something like HAL.

Rachael S. writes:

JD lists his interpretation of differing claims to religious truth, and then says:

Doesn’t look very dignifying to me, nor for that matter much like truth. Compared with this mess, those corny, laughable old non-transcendent truths $B!=(B stuff like water is wet, fire burns, E = mc2, and e$B&P(Bi + 1 = 0 $B!=(B look pretty good.

There being different opinions on what is true doesn’t eliminate the possibility that one of those opinions could be exclusively right. And there are disagreements in the scientific world, but I don’t see him calling for the abandonment of scientific inquiry.

Ian B. writes:

I saw the comment by Stuttaford. Unbelievable. What really blew me away was how completely unprovoked and nasty it was. It’s not like anybody got in his face or tried to debate him. He was commenting on a short good-natured comment on a different site about Arthur Clarke’s passing, which ended with a briefly respectful comment about the belief in the transcendent, and decided to throw in a gratuitous and unnecessary slur against all religious belief in his response. What the hell? Conservatives can’t say anything supportive about religious belief (as conservatives tend to do) without Stuttaford popping his nasty, stupid little atheist head up at National Review to snarl at them?

Also amazing is how casually dismissive and contemptuous Stuttaford was towards the idea that man’s dignity is grounded in transcendent truth—an idea that National Review was founded in and which all of its original writers espoused or at least respected. Respectfully disagreeing with it would be one thing, but that he can so blithely heap scorn on the idea without batting an eye, and without a thought towards his fellow writers or worry of repercussions, just makes my jaw drop.

And then there’s Derbyshire, with his juvenile “Sky Father” blather. Again, what the hell? That’s the kind of unclever snark you normally associate with 15-year-old village atheists—which Derb sounds more like every time he opens his ignorant yap. Perhaps, coming to atheism late in his life, he feels he needs to go back and start at the beginning. Also, I thought Derb claimed on National Review that he still believed in God, and was not an atheist, but a “Mysterian” (whatever the hell that’s supposed to be). So why is he here caricaturing any concept of the divine as belief in a “Sky Father”? Perhaps he couldn’t help himself, and momentarily forgot to keep lying about it. Or maybe, since nearly everybody saw through it and refers to him as an atheist instead of a “Mysterian,” he’s just decided to drop that idiotic charade. [LA replies: It proves that I’ve been right all along when I’ve said that Derbyshire is an atheist, notwithstanding his claims that he is not one (see this and this). Also, here are Google results for VFR pages that including “Derbyshire” and “atheist.”]

It’s a joke that these guys are writing for “conservative” magazine National Review, and Rich Lowry is a negligent coward for not doing his job and stepping in to enforce some kind of minimal order there. Can you imagine Stuttaford and Derbyshire being allowed to stick around as regular writers in the days of Whittaker Chambers? Not in a million years! It would be just as unlikely as hiring Ayn Rand as an editor. That magazine is in serious decline. They really need get things under control and put together some sort of coherent message.

By the way, regarding Goldberg, I’ve got to confess that I’ve started to warm to him lately. His thinking has taken on a much more serious tone recently, while still maintaining a bit of a humourous demeanor, and it’s become gradually less juvenile as well. [LA replies: I also have noticed a more normal, mature style coming from Goldberg lately, prose that doesn’t immediately leap out at you and say, “Here’s Jonah Goldberg!”]

Kilroy M. writes:

I take it the reference is to the following:

why humanity has to have a “purpose” escapes me. We just are. As for human dignity being grounded “In transcendent truth,” well, lets say that I feel a sneeze coming on.

One of the problems with Anglo-American conservatism is that many “conservatives” here no longer affirm any real values, merely let the left set the agenda and respond to it. The above comment just illustrates how vacuous so-called “conservative” spokesmen have become as a result. These people don’t really believe anything.

JS writes:

I feel like neither is seriously considering their own thoughts. Stuttaford calls the Atlantic piece “thought-provoking” but what on earth could be thought-provoking in the piece to someone whose mind is already made up and convinced that man has no purpose, that there’s nothing transcendent to be found anywhere in the Universe? How could you ever provoke such a mind? Doesn’t he see that he can’t call the idea which is the entire basis for the piece stupid and then say that the article was thought-provoking?

And Derbyshire’s not dumb, but doesn’t care to see that a preponderance of different ideas about the Transcendent, even if all those ideas completely disagree, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It especially doesn’t mean you should stop thinking about it. Even if there’s no scientific evidence for Transcendence, you must still consider is a logical premise.

They’re both crotchety like old men, but naive like teenagers.

William W. writes:

When I read Andrew Stuttaford’s column asserting that human life has no purpose, I wanted to ask, “Yet you feel the need to argue this at all. Why do you bother? What is your purpose?”

It’s sort of paradoxical, isn’t it? Anyone who claims that human life has no “purpose” must behave purposefully in even arguing this at all.

They would probably respond to this observation by noting that they are arguing against a divine, transcendent purpose-giver, not against the fact that individuals have drives and intentions.

But I think the most powerful word in all of our English language is “why.” For example:

Q: WHY are you arguing that life has no purpose?

A: To get rid of all this silly superstitious nonsense.

Q: WHY do you want to do that?

A: Because I think that it interferes with clear thinking.

Q: WHY should we value clear thinking?

A: Well, you know, it helps us to live better, more purposeful….uh, I mean more healthy lives.

Q: WHY should we want to be healthy?

A: (stamping foot) Because otherwise you will die more quickly.

Q: WHY should we wish to live at all?

A: The word “why” will either drive you to God, or else it will drive you in circles to nowhere at all.

LA replies:

That’s very good, exactly what’s needed.

An alternative approach would be to say what one says to postmodernists who assert that there is no truth: “If there is no truth, then what you’re saying can’t be true, so why should I listen to you”? Just cut them off. Refuse to deal with them. Tell them they have no right to speak or to expect that others will listen to them.

Someone who says that there is no purpose in life or that there is no truth is parasitically depending on the very thing he’s sneering at. If a person says there is no purpose, there is no reason for him to think and speak. If a person says there is no truth, i.e., if he says there is no possible correspondence between words and objective reality, then there is no reason to listen to what he says. So these people deny the very possibility of meaningful speech, even as they continue to speak. We should tell them that they have no right to do that, and then end the discussion. Period. If that happened to them a few times,.they would get the message and stop saying those things.

LA writes:

I have more on this subject in an another entry.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at March 20, 2008 10:39 AM | Send

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