But, if life ends at the grave, it makes no difference whether one has lived as a Stalin or as a saint. As the Russian writer Feodor Dostoevsky rightly said: “If if there is immortality, then all things are permitted.” Given the finality of death, it really does not matter how you live.
William Lane Craig, of course, repeats an oft misquoted passage from The Brother Karamazov and for a professional philosopher, as he routinely claims to be, one would think he’d know better; likewise, there’s something about Mr. Craig’s suggestion that ‘professional’ legitimatizes ‘philosopher’ that leads me to believe that he shouldn’t be the former and isn’t the latter. It’s difficult to attribute an author the philosophical views of the characters he creates, but Mr. Craig probably depends less on the person of Dostoevsky than the content of the sentence, the philosophy itself. Ivan Karamazov was certainly concerned with the implications of immortality of the soul, both as a matter of metaphysics and as a matter of belief, as Constance Garnett’s translation suggests: “If you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up. Moreover,” Karamazov continues, “Nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful, even cannibalism. […] For every individual […] who does not believe in God or immortality, the moral law of nature must immediately be changed into the exact contrary of the former religious law, and that egoism, even to crime, must become not only lawful but even recognised as the inevitable, the most rational, even honourable outcome of his position.” For the sake of drawing the distinction, if Karamozov, in this passage, is concerned with belief in existence of God or the non-existence of God as the cause of moral actions, then we can allay his concerns with empirical certainty: atheism does not cause immorality. But, this concern about the belief in God suggests to me that Karamazov might imagine that there would be no difference between believing in God in a universe in which God happens to exist or believing in that same God as matter of actual fiction; in either universe, whether there is actually a God, belief in God is what actually fosters moral behavior, which I don’t think is Mr. Craig’s contention, nor would it stand to evidence. Rather, I think Mr. Craig and those others who misuse this quote from Dostoevsky are suggesting that, considering those two universes, the universe without a God may contain moral actions, but those moral actions are arbitrary and meaningless and the people in that universe without a God might just as well go around killing each other – it doesn’t really matter. I’ve never entirely understood this argument beyond reading it as a brute assertion; it seems like the meaningless of moral actions in a universe without a God in part stems from the fact that moral laws would then simply be contrived through the power of the few or the many, but also from the fact that any sort of consequence we might experience can be escaped through death into annihilation. I’m not sure why agreed upon rules are meaningless and, more importantly, I’m not sure why Karamazov, and Craig, I would imagine, would suppose that people, left to our own devices without God to give us rules and reward us eternally for following them or breaking the slightest among them, would descend into cannibalism and then what… dogs and cats living together.
I mean: why wouldn’t we descend into socialized medicine? Or greater funding for the arts?
Fundamentally, I think this contest doesn’t comes down God; it comes down to people. To my mind, we can gain some insight from two of the greatest and most important thinkers of the late twentieth century and their frequent discussions on God, mortality, and consequence.
I enjoy this particular moment between Calvin and Hobbes – it captures Hobbes’ cynicism and Calvin nicely illustrates that whether our lives have consequence in the afterlife or whether live is ultimately inconsequential, with the right attitude, both could be a bad thing. Calvin raises an important point and that is the question of attitude because many of the claims which will fundamentally justify the argument behind Mr. Craig’s quoting of Dostoevsky – the theistic depiction of atheism as inept when it comes to moral questions – are ultimately rooted in broad, emotional matters that are not easily answered.
To a certain extent, I think literature engages the question of life with or with eternal consequences by testing narration in worlds without any consequences. The question of whether society could survive if there were no real authorities to punish is very much at the heart of Lord of the Flies by William Golding. We all remember the story from high school, but for the sake of orienting us all: a plane full of children crash on an island and before long, they divide into groups and start waring, and in the chaos, some of the children are killed. For our purposes, Lord of the Flies seems to be suggesting that without consequences, society descends into chaos and savagery; Mr. Craig might be tempted to reference Lord of the Flies but that would rather careless for such a professional philosopher, especially because Lord of the Flies also contains a rather strong indictment of religion. Early in the book, the children begin to imagine that the island is inhabited by a beast and they take to hunting the beast, initially, in addition to gathering meat from the wild pigs that live on the island and then instead. Their hunts become ritualized and the ritual soon takes over and becomes more important than the hunt itself; one tempestuous night, while chanting and stomping around a bonfire, the children, in the heat and lust of the hunt, kill one their own. The idea of ritual then approaches religion when the children begin to present offerings to the beast in an attempt to appease it, the most famous being the head of a pig on a stick which adorns the cover of the book. So, to return to the question, William Golding suggests that without eternal consequences, we would descend into chaos, violence, savagery, and religion.
To some extent, I must admit that both Messers Golding and Craig proceed from places of emotion and attitude, so neither convince me; so, to conclude and simply illustrate the point again, I would like turn to yet another example of literature tackling the question of life in a world without consequence.
In Groundhog Day (1993), Phil Connors is geographically trapped in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania and temporally trapped in February 2, Groundhog Day, reliving the exact same day over and over again. When Phil realizes that he is not subject to the ordinary rules of moral consequence, he takes advantage of the situation, stealing money, seducing women, driving drunk, and even committing suicide. But, without any reference to eternal consequences and seemingly without purpose, Phil turns instead to self-improvement, reading classical literature and French poetry, learning to play piano, helping others, and finding a place for himself in Punxsutawney. So, to return to the question, Groundhog Day suggests that without eternal consequences, we would descend into art, culture, and kindness.
Sometimes when I discuss morality and God with people, I encounter the idea that without theism to civilize us, whether through the actual metaphysical reality of moral absolutes which we can apprehend through proper use of reason or through the force of deeply believed fictions, man would descend into his baser instincts. Sometimes the evidence of this is children who are not yet civilized and utterly evil – this piece of evidence has always struck me as disturbing since most of the children I’ve met in my life have been rather sweet and gentle. And, to be frank, I see no evidence that our baser instincts are all that bad; if we are a social species, our base instincts must involve supporting one another and thinking about the tribe.