“Why are we here?” In December 1988 Life Magazine put this question to 50 people, famous and un-famous. You can see the other answers here. Most of the answers are predictably droll. Richard Nixon gave a surprisingly good answer, given how he lived his life. Leonard Nimoy fudged his answer. He replied “I find the question “Why are we here?” typically human. I’d suggest “Are we here?” would be the more logical choice.” That was good for a laugh, as intended, but Rene Descartes got us past the question “are we here?”.
In the last week there has been more fudging of the question “why are we here”. It started on the ABC television program Q&A on 9 April when Richard Dawkins, the eminent biologist and outspoken atheist, said that it is a nonsense question akin to asking “what is the colour of envy”. Philosopher A.C. Grayling made the same assertion, that the question is not well formed, on the same program one week later. This is a massive cop out. It is a well formed and in fact essential question in every life well lived.
I thought that Dawkins was quite good on the Q&A program in which he debated religious belief with George Pell. I wasn’t going to listen to the program because I didn’t think Dawkins, Pell and the program host Tony Jones would have much of interest to say, but I heard it by accident riding in a taxi from Melbourne Airport to Melbourne Business School, and it was surprisingly interesting. But I was dismayed to hear Dawkins fudge the question of “why are we here”. By pretending that it is a not a real question, Dawkins has exposed himself to criticism that will never go away. He sounds like a weasel worded politician when he wriggles out of that question. He needs to be honest and address the question directly.
My understanding is that Richard Dawkins is an empiricist and a materialist. Empiricists believe that knowledge comes only from sensory perception — there is no innate knowledge beyond the knowledge built into the human genome that is needed by the developing human brain to organise all the information that arrives from the senses as a single cell develops into a person. Immanuel Kant showed in the Critique of Pure Reason that some knowledge must be innate. Empiricists believe that claims about reality that cannot be demonstrated empirically — by repeated experiment — must be rejected. Materialism, which goes with empiricism, asserts that there is only energy and matter (therefore, only energy) in the universe. Materialists hold that the spiritual part of the universe — that beyond the material world — is the empty set.
The problem for Richard Dawkins and like minded persons is the logical answer to the question “why are we here?” The logical answer for empiricist, materialists must be that we are not here for any reason at all other than to reproduce. Our bodies and our lives have only one purpose — to carry our genes into the future. There is no higher purpose. There is certainly no collective purpose, save the collective propagation of the genes in our bodies and the bodies of our relatives.
There is no such thing as love or beauty or honour or sacrifice. These are just modal brain states induced by chemicals for the purpose of propagating the genes. There is no such thing as ‘moral law’. Morality is a purely human construct. Because there is no purpose in the empiricist, materialist world other than to propagate genes, there is only one criteria on which different moral codes can be assessed — which one is better for propagation of the genes. Morality is a means to an end — nothing is innately good or bad — it is only good or bad relative to the survival of genes. The only moral framework that makes sense in an empiricist, materialist world is a utilitarian framework in which propagation of genes creates the objective function.
Empiricist, materialists believe that we are here by pure chance. Life is simply a higher state of complexity than other matter. There is no more purpose in your life than in the ‘life’ of a rock save the purpose of propagating the physical-chemical-biological complexity that is a gene. The essential difference between you and a rock is only complexity and the level of energy that flows through you as a complex, energy consuming entity.
Dawkins and company fudge their answers because they want to convert others to their way of thinking. Unfortunately, for Richard Dawkins most people don’t want to hear that they don’t really ‘love’ their children, they just have a chemical reaction when they experience them in thought or through the senses. Most people don’t want to hear that their lives have no meaning. So, they have to pretend that ‘why are we here’ is meaningless.
It is a pity that Richard Dawkins and others find this demeaning fudge necessary. I find the beliefs of empiricist, materialists perfectly rational and coherent. It is not what I believe, but it is unassailable unless it is fudged. And stating that the question ‘why are we here’ is not a well formed question is a massive fudge. Why not just be honest? Dawkins should just answer in a plain and honest way that is true to his beliefs — we are here by accident, and not for any purpose other than to propagate genes. That is the ineluctable conclusion for empiricist materialists. They should be proudly defend their beliefs and face up to this difficult question.