Friday, 27 May 2016

David Chapman and Meaningness


Meaningness and Eternalism

For years David Chapman has been grappling with, and  developing online, his views on the age-old problems of morality and the 'meaning of existence'; problems that have dogged mankind for thousands of years, and which, until the last few hundred years, were solved by religion (in its widest sense). In the last few centuries the proportion of the human population that feel bound to reject religion has been growing, leaving more and more people nagged by the worrying possibility that our lives are pointless.  Chapman talks about purpose, ethics, and selfhood, but in a manner that he believes is neither religious nor philosophical, for he thinks of himself as anti-religious, and anti-philosophical.
His rejection of religion has centred on the concept of 'eternalism'.  Eternalism, according to Wikipedia, is a philosophical approach to the ontological nature of time, which takes the view that all points in time are equally real, as opposed to the 'presentist' idea that only the present is real and the 'growing block universe' theory of time in which the past and present are real while the future is not. Chapman clearly has in mind faith-systems like Christianity, Islam, communism; systems that provide believers with answers to the otherwise insoluble problems of ethics, metaphysics, and politics. He sees (I suppose) a common feature in that the answers provided are unchallengeable precisely because they are not contingent on time and place; they provide answers for all time; so he calls them 'eternalist'. Chapman rejects 'eternalism', and its false promises. I see the common feature of these religious (and perhaps also political) systems to lie in the way they are propagated, held, and justified. I call them 'faith-based', as I see that the propositions are supported not by observation, experience, or logic, but by hearsay, authority, and wishful-thinking. And I reject them on those grounds. (Communism does not fit neatly here, and needs another paragraph.)
But I agree that they are 'eternalist', so far as that goes. And agree that they are attractive to their devotees in their comprehensiveness, and in providing a feeling of certainty; a feeling that is seductive, but illusory. Chapman goes on to explore the way we love to feel we understand things even when we do not. Few people can tell us exactly how a tin-opener works, or a bicycle, or the tides; though most of us are happy with out sketchy level of understanding. I confess to having a great love of certainty (even siding with Einstein in the Born-Einstein debate about 'God playing dice'). And confess to finding it unexpectedly hard to explain tides if we go at it at all thoroughly. However, I avoid the mistake of thinking that I can explain tides, because I have several times tried, and know the difficulty (E.g. why two tides per day. Why two equal tides, if the density of water and earth are different.) On the other hand, I was not too rattled to find I did not know (until I thought about it) which leg of the tin-opener had the cog, which the cutting wheel. It is after all sufficient to know 'how to use it'.
This is interesting, but I suggest it is not relevant to his central problem, which is to find a way of answering the recurring question of  'the meaning of existence' that is not simply an unsupported, eternalist statement of faith.
In order to search for and find this elusive quality, David Chapman felt he had to name it and, as no name currently existed, he invented the word 'Meaningness'. (It is possible that the word 'meaningfulness' might have sufficed, but was already in use and could not be 'patented'.) Perhaps we could look at it this way: we spend 2 hours of our life watching a film and, depending on the film, we feel benefited, or we feel we have wasted our time. We are, in this, discussing the 'meaningness' of the film; not the 'meaning' of the film, which is a quite different question. Or we could ask, as perhaps David Chapman does, 'what is the meaning of our life?' How much or how little does it have of the quality of 'meaningness'? 
But in the very act of asking that question he is, I believe, creating his problem, for to ask the question seems to imply that there is an answer; that there is a 'purpose'; that there is someone (or some thing) that can harbour an intention, and has the ability to arrange things thus, or differently. Those are implication we have already rejected. (Vide supra.) If you deny all possible answers, then you should not ask the question.
It seems to me that David Chapman has not yet achieved his goal, for much of his online Meaningness hypertext consists of 'place-holders' labelled "work in progress". But I think he is working on the right lines. His work is almost a Baconian Novum Organum of Meaningness, for he treads his way round the topic, testing each vision in his mind for its meaningness. He is building up a list of reactions to situations using his own 'feeling' of meaningness.
To my way of thinking this quest is indeed philosophical, and I suspect Chapman only declared himself anti-philosophical so that he did not have to read up all the myriad words that preceding philosophers have written on the subject. I believe the 'answer' will be a sort of objective subjectivity, for I see the possibility of a 'natural history of the human mind', where the subject matter lies inside the brain of the investigator, but the objectivity arises from the existence of similar brains. I believe morals are generated by the individual mind, but tested and verified by society, as I have blogged elsewhere.