"Among many who profess to be atheists one will still find the curious belief that the Universe has preferences in the matter of which words humans use to describe it with and what values humans use to live it with."-- a reader comments in the Moot:
uh dude, don't you see the inherent contradiction there? Aren't you using words to describe the universe or reality you live in, and aren't you abiding by values you feel are important? If not, then what is the point of this blog? as you have hit upon THE intractable truth, that the universe doesn't give a damn. It's even worse than that, as the universe is not even a living entity that can feel anything. As an atheist and nihilist, nay, as a human being, it is quite clear to me and everyone on the planet (whether they concede it or not) that the universe IS a nihilistic construct. The entire thing is a destructive process throughout. There really is no creation, simply a destruction. In order to build a home you must chop down the trees. You must disturb an environment and space. It's really a zero sum game. Nothing is created or destroyed, it's merely a repetition of disturbances, fluctuations, destruction after destruction. However, we are apes, "human beings", biological organisms, a collection of atoms, whatever, that create value based on the need to survive and propagate. This is curious, seeing as how nothing can really truly survive or propagate. In the end it will be a heat death and all our struggles, hopes, dreams, and lusts will have been for naught. You may counter and say this is the long view of things. But this is not the case. This IS the way things are now. We simply deny it, believing ourselves to be important. We are not important. Nothing is important.My response, upgraded and adapted from the Moot:
The aphorism you mention is calling attention to the very contradiction you describe. Of course, the whole point of the aphorism is to emphasize that the universe has no preferences as to which words we use to describe it or which values we invest it with. But this is not the same thing as denying there are descriptions that put us in a better position to predict and control the environment or denying there are values worth fighting for.
I believe there are more and less reasonable scientific, legal, moral, esthetic, ethical, political beliefs and I believe that there are criteria on the basis of which their reasonableness can be adjudicated, and I believe it is better to be reasonable than not.
So, I am an atheist. And my atheism doesn't accept what looks to me like the backdoor onto-theism of correspondence accounts of truth or objectivist accounts of value, either. And yet I still passionately argue for better beliefs in matters of facts, concerns, and norms. I fully accept James' characterization of truth as the good in the way of belief, and good for definite assignable reasons (that last part doesn't get quoted as much as the first part, but that last part is where all the action is). I make these passionate arguments for warranted descriptions and progressive concerns and democratic values in the name of a reasonableness I prefer to unreasonableness. And hence I don't think I am any kind of nihilist at all, even though I don't believe in gods or other supernatural powers endorsing my values. (You will find many posts elaborating my sense of connections between pluralism, pragmatism, atheism, science, democracy anthologized here.)
By the way, I happen to think the universe is pretty marvelous and that our collective opportunities for solving our shared problems are always absolutely available right before our eyes, even though I think the universe is indifferent about whether humans enjoy the blessings available to them or not, or behave reasonably or not. I don't think there is anything particularly sad or bleak about a world that lacks sky-daddies and sky-mommies giving us the thumbs up or punishing folks who give us a hard time. I don't agree that the laws of thermodynamics make a mockery of our work to solve shared problems and offer up good works by our lights to the judgment of the world and of posterity.
I just don't need the universe to care about us for me to care about us. I don't need to fear hell to want to be helpful and fair so the world is less a hell on earth. I don't need the verdict of a priest telling me his version of the verdict of his god before I offer up to the hearing of the world my own verdicts about the right, the good, the beautiful, and the true. I am eager to see what the world will make of me, and what we will make of the world, peer-to-peer. That as close as I come to piety, personally.