Repost: On the Goodness of the Material World

Once again in the comment section of another blog I ran into atheist pessimism about the value of material existence. An atheist really should be neutral about material being: in that vision of the world matter simply “is” and has no value whatsoever. But in practice I keep running into deep atheist pessimism: life is awful, bloody, brutish and fundamentally wrong. Last time the discussion was about the tendency of animals to eat each other, this time is was about whether or not babies are horrible monsters that for some strange reason decide to take over a woman’s body only to come bursting out like the monsters in the Alien movies:

It (pregnancy) is dreadful and horrible, and it is a parasite, I’ve been there. Fortunately for me, my pregnancies were intended and I had not only a lot of support, but a lot of happy natural chemicals telling me everything in the midst of what is essentially a horror story is good.

It makes no sense to me why someone would choose to see normal animal existence as “essentially a horror story”. I suppose I should feel repulsed by or sorry for these people but I basically just draw a blank. I find it both irrational and utterly foreign.

 Anyway, here is an old post on the theme. 

winter-farm-424

The other day I was helping a friend build a greenhouse. As we cleared snow, swung picks in the frozen earth, sank the posts and erected the structure, my friend described the principles of permaculture, an art of gardening that respects and imitates as much as possible the natural rhythms of the earth: embrace the diversity of the crops, let the plants and flowers interact and support one another, waste nothing, take advantage of the natural landscape and canopy, etc.

It was a warm day by New England standards, temperatures hovering right around freezing, so we worked without jackets and enjoyed the sunshine. We see so little of the sun this time of year, at least those of us who work inside, that we both commented on the goodness of the sun.

I very rarely think about things I read or write on the internet outside of my coffee breaks, blogging is a very small part of my life, but that day I thought of a debate I had recently on the goodness of creation: how do we know the material world is good?

So far as I can see it is, like most of the big questions, a problem of interpretation: there is nothing conclusive, no final evidence that the material world should be seen as good, bad or indifferent, and yet we base our entire lives on the interpretation. It is a question not of this or that bit of proof, but of which vision we find a more compelling account of the whole.

At first glance it seems obvious where man gets the idea that the world is good, our lives depend on it: rabbits are good because they edible, the sun is good because it warms our bodies, trees are good because they provide food and shelter. But while true it does not go deep enough. It only posits some individual beings as good for man, it says nothing about the whole.

We operate in the web of relationships that is the natural world. To successfully take care of ourselves we have to observe and participate in that web of relationships, entering a sort of communion with it. A hunter or gatherer has to know and be in deep sympathy with the habits of the deer or the mushroom, not only in and of themselves, but in relation to ecosystem. A farmer has to know the patterns of the seasons, the cycle of his crops, how they respond to rhythms of sun and rain.

The basic pattern upon which it all depends is birth, life, death, and new life, which is repeated not only on the individual scale but also on the cosmic scale, given the change of seasons under the influence of the sun. If not for this pattern and the millions of relationships that it supports, human life would simply not be possible. So not only is this reality seen as stroke of luck for human existence, it is also seen as inherently ordered because the pattern repeats itself. Man experiences life as part of a cosmos – an ordered whole.

The pattern of birth, life and death can also be described as a process of perfection and corruption. A life form starts in embryonic form and proceeds to grow to some kind of perfection or fulfillment of its potentialities, most primally through eating – it eats and grows – but also through experience and relationships. It then passes on its form to a new being (reproduction) before it enters a stage of corruption, either slowly through the aging process, or quickly though an accident, illness, or a predator.

For an individual being, goodness is 1) individual perfection, 2) anything which adds to its individual perfection. This process cannot happen independently of the cosmic process. So the cosmic whole is, of itself, good for each individual living in it. Even if something is evil for an individual, say a deer being eaten by a wolf, it is part of the cosmic process that contributes to the good of the whole.

The final experience man has of the goodness and order of the world is that it is beautiful, from the sunset to the deer to the wolf. Order, goodness, and beauty are intimately related in how man experiences reality.

***

At the heart of Platonic and Christian philosophy is the notion of the transcendental attributes of being, those qualities which are synonymous with existence. Everything that exists, insofar as it exists, is good, true and beautiful. The “more” something exists the more good it is. A rock is good because it exists, but a rabbit is better because it exists more – as an animal it is on a higher plane of existence than a mineral. A man, since he is rational, exists on a still higher plane of being and is therefore a higher good.

Goodness therefore is being understood on the one hand as “being” under the aspect of desirability for attaining perfection (perfection is the fulfillment of some potential), but on the other hand, a being makes another more perfect because it itself has perfection. A teacher for example shares his mental “perfection” with the less perfect student. So the better something is, the more capable it is of perfecting other beings. Hence the medieval axiom Bonum Diffusivum Sui. Goodness spreads itself.

To come full circle: the sun is good because it shares of its substance, its light and warmth, and plants and animals respond by flourishing. Socrates is good because he shares his wisdom with the young. A mature tree is good because it grows fruit which passes its nature onto a new tree. A wolf is good because it is powerful and cunning, even if that power and cunning make it bad for the deer. The death of the deer is evil for the deer, good for the wolf, and good because the teeming diversity of the natural world would not be possible without it.

***

 To the modern mentality, none of this makes any sense. Material reality is seen as having no inherent meaning or goodness. What man perceives as objective order, goodness, and beauty in material reality is only subjective, a figment of human imagination. The sunset is not beautiful, it simply appears as such to man’s over-developed capacity for recognizing patterns. The deer is not inherently good, humans just find it tasty. The cosmos is not an ordered whole, it is an accidental collection of things approaching entropy. It is understandable that men should mistake their own mental patterns and tastes as being objectively real, but it is only an illusion.

This mentality has opened the door to man to engage in unlimited manipulation of reality – technological advancement. On the other hand it has alienated him from nature. It has also made it difficult to believe in God. The modern way of looking at nature is inherently atheistic, however much men might try to believe in God in spite of it.

***

There is no one compelling reason to believe in one vision of reality over another, no proof that can be offered as to which is better. Like belief in God, it is ultimately a choice.

I know which vision I choose. I know which world I chose to live in. My hope it to live in a way adequate to the vision.

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One comment

  1. […] whether or not babies are horrible monsters that for some strange reason decide to take over a woman’s body only to come bursting out like the monsters in the Alien movies […] It makes no sense to me why someone would choose to see normal animal existence as “essentially a horror story”. I suppose I should feel repulsed by or sorry for these people but I basically just draw a blank. (dpmonahan) […]

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