This is a quote from a random article I just read. See here: http://www.alternet.org/belief/153469/an_atheist%27s_plea_on_christmas%3A_%27go_enjoy_real_life%27?page=2
I have many issues with the article but, for tonight, I just want to focus on this section. I'd like to highlight the assumptions (which the author, in his defense, doesn't really try to hide) first:
-Poetry and art are just the result of the brain doing "brain stuff" (because I want to term it that way cause it is kind of silly)
-There is only the material (i.e. natural world)
-That all of this can stil be considered magnificent and wonderful.
So, let's deal with assumptions one and two. Poetry and art are just the result of the evolution of our physical bodies e.g. the development of our wonderful brains and the appendages to carry out the brainy orders. Now, I have a great respect for science and believe that brain function can dictate a lot of things. It is obvious enough that damage to the brain can have serious effects on personality and general functioning. A damaged brain is terrible and dangerous. But, does that necessarily mean that all we are is our brain?
I am fond of the philosophical conundrum revolving around identity. What makes a person who they are and would they be the same if they were placed, say, in a different body? I think the answer here is a simple no. The persons in question are not comparable in that manner. Everything about a person is an amalgamation of so many things that they are nigh inextricable from these factors. So, why am I not me if I am in a different body?
Besides the obvious physical issues (i.e. I have a body that functions a bit differently and thus have different skills sets) there is the fact that that body would have to have been born into a different situation than the one I was born into and would therefore develop in a unique fashion (please note that this placing of myself is being thought of as from birth basically). Those factors I mentioned are many and varied, but some big ones are: environment (as previously mentioned), genetic makeup, natural brain chemistry, and developed philosophy (more on that one later).
Like I said, with my temperament, it is likely I may have turned out very differently had my family life been different. As it was, I grew up in a dysfunctional household with an emotionally, verbally, spiritually, and sometimes physically abusive father. My natural tendencies which are dictated by the brain function I was born with and the genetics which dictate that--among other things--lent themselves to into my becoming who I am today. For example, my sensitivity was heightened and I developed a conflict between my natural sanguine optimism and my harsh reality. Part of me could not help but hope, but a large part of me was incredibly battered and felt that there was no real way out. That, of course, affected my psychological help and I later had to get assistance with such things.
What would my temperament have made of me if I grew up in a wholly supportive and loving environment? Well, for one, I am fairly sure I would have been able to accept my own gifts sooner and be more developed on my natural talents because I was in an environment where they could blossom. But, would I have become more shallow as a result? It is easy for one to take things for granted, would I have done the same thing? That would make my whole approach to living quite different. I likely wouldn't have sought the Truth with such fervor that it lead me to Rome.
So, we can see that the smallest change can change a person completely for better or worse. That said, I have been describing that with the idea of "spirit" in the back of my mind. As I believe in such things, it is hard to get them out of my head, but let me give that a shot or two. So, let's say everything about me is contained in my brain. What can change brain chemistry/personality? We know blunt trauma and the like can do such things, but what is it about scarring experiences that can change brain chemistry? An otherwise healthy mind can begin to think in very unhealthy and circular ways. When we treat a depressed person these days, we give them therapy to help them change their thinking and give them pills in cases where their chemicals are unbalanced. In my experience, simply throwing pills at the problem fails to solve the problem, thus the combination is necessary.
But, why would reorienting your thinking even be necessary and why would we notice that our minds are not working properly? Here is the issue: the brain is matter that runs on electricity on some level and does so without our conscious thoughts. Simply put, "you" or "I" am not necessary for the brain to function and carry out its duties at all. Really, there can be no "you" or "I" because everything hinges on a delicate balance of chemicals that are ultimate the result of movements of subatomic particles. The subatomic area of our universe is where every, as they say, gets crazy. We have uncertainty principles and cannot really track things without moving them etc. Those particles are obviously way too small for a human to manipulate in a conscious manner. It is possible, for the sake of argument, that physical training can help us control our brains; however, it does not follow that any sort of training is going to give us control of the subatomic level.
Essentially, the randomness inherent in that aspect of the universe is what everything hinges on. In fact, it would be accurate to say that the brain is not even the big man in charge. The brain is doing what it does, but is not a sentient being itself and not an all-powerful bit of matter in the least. The brain, my brain and yours, is simply a result of things outside of anyone's (barring some sort of deity's) control. If there is nothing but the material world, all destiny is fixed. There are no human movements and there is no underlying evolutionary principle. The semblance of consciousness that we have is a delightful fluke at best and an illusion whichever way that is spun.
This is because consciousness implies some level of control. A conscious being can control what they are about to say (to whatever extent you may or may not think possible) while an unconscious one cannot. In a world where there is nothing but the natural then nothing can be blamed. Morality really cannot be said to exist for a few reasons:
One, no one is in control of their actions. Consciousness is necessarily something above or separate from nature itself. The body can run on its own with just the brain just fine without any real thought. But, that is not going to explain temperament or personality in the least. My body continues to breathe and function without my conscious decision to do so. There need not be a "me" to fuss about.
Two, commenting on right and wrong require consciousness. Those types of decision require arguments beyond: that tree eats animals, avoid that tree. Morality requires subtlety, which is something the natural world does not have an abundance of, if it has any. Any subtlety found in nature can be considered to be on the lowest level of subtlety: simple trickery or being unexpected . A venus fly try looks appetizing but is, in fact, a murderous killer! But, moral subtlety is of a different kind entirely. Killing is wrong, but there are some times when it is the best course of action and can be considered "right" on one level. However, on a base level, it is still wrong (and why should it be WRONG anyhow? But, I digress). The normal strictures are lifted in certain cases but that's the point, really. In nature, things are usually as they seem and far more one dimensional. A platypus, as silly as it looks, is a poisonous little creature. It may not look like it at first, so there is that level of unexpectedness first, but all those illusions get tossed out the window as soon as we see our buddy get scratched and die from platypus related injuries. No amount of belief or cajoling is going to change that fact. If you get scratched by a platypus, you could possibly die (i don't know how poisonous they actually are). That will ALWAYS be the case. That's the difference. There is no instance where the thing would not be poisonous barring someone else stepping in to genetically alter or just rid the silly creature of its more dangerous parts. (of course, the platypus can evolve to lose these things, but that depends on a change in environment where it isn't advantageous to be poisonous in certain ways etc. and would take ages for that to change in most cases. Yes, moths can alter color quickly, but they are still essentially MOTHS.)
Reason three is all of the conscious thought etc. is necessarily an illusion of sorts created by subatomic particles. We may think we are a person, but that isn't necessarily the case. i can think a lot of things and if there is nothing but the physical, I can think nothing at all. There is no I. Since consciousness is an illusion it follows something we consciously discuss and concern ourselves with is a part of said illusion.
So, what are poetry and art? There is a sense, when one talks to an artist, where the artist feels that they are not in complete control of their art and that it just comes to them. Those situations could be attributable to brain function, but that is not always the case. I can write a song and arrange it with very specific thoughts in mind and control every aspect of it. Some parts I can't (improvisation, mistakes, etc), but I can approach my art with conscious thought. I am sitting down now and making the decision to write about these subjects. If there is nothing but material, I am not. It is quite simple. The movements are all random and I have nothing to do with them. As stated, there is no me.
On one level, this solves the brain in another body problem. It makes the question meaningless.
Now, the final assumption: knowing that everything is material can make us better appreciate our lives etc. We can see things as magnificent and wonderful. Those are judgement calls. It is saying that this thing is good and passing judgement on that. Well, the problem has been laid out earlier.
One, there is not "person" to make a judgement. There is no thinking and there is no weighing.
Two, an extension of the previous argument, the lack of personhood means there is a lack of choice in the matter. A person who does not see it the way that author posts it has no choice in the matter. I once had a materialist tell me that I should just accept that everything is material and move on. But, I cannot simply by what his philosophy states. Everything is in the atoms etc. I can no more change my mind than her can.
Three, our consciousness is an illusion. This piggybacks as well. As stated, I cannot REALLY change my mind. I may think I did, but that really isn't the case. The material world just happened to move in a place that made it seem that way. no control.
How can you "consider" anything in such a world? I have always found it interesting that materialists are rarely full on materialists. They tend to snake around the biggest problem in their philosophy, which is: nothing has any meaning because there are no persons to be had, we just "think" it does due to a persistent trick of the mind. Thinking something is the case is not a good ground for saying that it IS, in fact, the case.
Wonderment, takes separation from nature, any sort of appreciation does. The beauty of a sunset and my subsequent poetry about it takes my stepping back and absorbing the experience. That distance is necessary for any art or discussion on morality to make any sort of sense. The fact that you can use your mind to argue and you think that it has any bearing on the world we live in shows a strong amount of faith in reason and our faculties.