Friday, June 9, 2017

Matter and Meaning

I came across an article on the Huffington Post expressing a view I've often seen, and want to address. Briefly, in it the author, Rabbi Adam Jacobs, claims "nonbelievers" must really at heart believe in something more than matter as their belief system isn't consistent.

Of course, saying all nonbelievers (I don't know whether he includes others besides atheists under that term) are materialists isn't true, but I'll simply ignore that, since it isn't the point of this post. Rather, even if we accepted materialism, what he claims isn't necessarily the case.

Jacobs claims that "nonbelievers" (here meaning materialists) must believe that nothing they ever do will matter, since none has any more significance than another. He says he's awaiting the person who admits this is the case. Well, there are some materialists who think this, but not all. Has he shown they must? I don't see it. How is "everything is matter" equal to "nothing means anything"?

Naturally, he suggests materialists that deny it are deluded. What follows is a brief series of basically "gotcha" questions for materialists. These include asking why materialists won't use the corpse of a loved one for dog food and suchlike. He claims any who said they wouldn't based on respect is simply in denial, with their notion being nothing more than a "subjective, non-intellectual whim" because they are simply "electrical blips in the skull". This again is not argued for, only assumed.

I'm not going to address every question, since they are much the same, but one he raises about art is good for illustrating the problem. He asks what significance on materialism a painting has, as it isn't good for food, etc. This assumes, of course, that only the most basic human urges would make sense on materialism, yet that is not shown. In any case, whether or not we accept materialism is true, aren't all paintings the arrangements of matter? Paint, wood, etc.? We might well ask where this significance comes in for it regardless. Some don't find much significance in many of the paintings out there. It is generally held to be a subjective quality.

There is also the assumption he makes that materialism is arbitrary, blind, random, etc. Again, this is not (at least entirely) the case for all materialists. There is also no reason things (like paintings) can't be composed of various matter which isn't meaningful itself, but has it over and above that, due to the specifics. After all, we can still tell the difference between a painting and jars of paint. Is that not a meaningful difference?

His article closes by saying anyone that rejects this view "may be more of a believer than you think". Assuming, of course, that only a "believer" can find meaning. What believers he does not say, but his religion would presumably be included, plus probably Christianity. So, is any religion sufficient? Even if they disagree about what the meaning is? He does not say.

This method of argument not only commits the strawman fallacy, but also an ad hominem, accusing anybody who rejects his conclusion of being in denial. Yet, as I hope I've shown, he hasn't made clear that his is the only logical conclusion on the philosophy being attacked. To make an analogy, if some gentile claimed he was in denial because his holy book commanded certain laws and Jacobs didn't act on them, I don't think he would agree that is right or fair.

In sum, be courteous to opponents. No one will be convinced by things like this. Unfortunately, it is about what I've come to expect at Huffington Post, from believers and nonbelievers alike. No doubt this is because controversy draws views. Sadly, any real depth is often lost or nonexistent.

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