We feel special today

More pondering on this question of what is good and for whom. Compassion is an important human virtue, but would it be an important virtue, or a virtue at all, if humans were different kinds of entities? If we were conscious but immortal and perfect, if we never suffered, if we had no vulnerability of any kind (and didn’t know of any entities that did), would compassion be a virtue? Would we see it as a good thing? I tend to doubt it.

I had similar doubts and questions about some things Keith Ward said in a discussion with Anthony Grayling in Prospect last year.

The scientific perception of the cosmos is that it is an intelligible, law-like, mathematically complex structure, which produces intelligent moral agents by a process of increasingly integrated complexity from an initial state of extreme simplicity (the big bang).

Um – is it? I don’t think so, I think Ward stacked the deck a little there, sneaking in that ‘intelligent moral agents’ – I don’t think that is a particularly scientific perception. It’s not a terribly precise description, frankly, and it’s certainly not a complete one. Bipedal language-using primates would be a more precise description – which is not to disagree with Ward that our (inadequate) intelligence and (frighteningly inadequate) moral agency are much the most interesting (at least to us) things about us, but it is to say that’s more a moral perception than a scientific one.

Contemporary religious thought sees the purpose of creating such a cosmos as the production of finite minds that can enter into loving relationships with one another, take partial responsibility for the world and be fulfilled by knowing the supreme mind of the creator…Is this the best of possible worlds? It is the only one that could have us in it, and while we are not the best of possible beings, we are perhaps – each one of us – of great intrinsic worth.

Well, perhaps, but perhaps not. But I have to say that it strikes me as unpersuasive. Why would the purpose of creating the cosmos be the production of finite minds that can enter into loving relationships with one another? If it were, why would it take a cosmos like this to do that? Wouldn’t something smaller, simpler, and less expensive have done the job? And also if it were, are we the best, or a very good, example of minds that can enter into loving relationships with one another? If it is, why do we do so much entering into hating relationships with one another?

But the ‘why would that be the purpose of the cosmos’ question is the most basic one, because why would that be anyone or anything’s purpose? Suppose a world (a pre-cosmos world, which is tricky) without any finite minds that can enter into loving relationships with one another, and a creating entity of some kind (of what kind, we don’t know). Why would it want them? Why would it think they ought to exist, and so have the purpose of creating them when it decided to create the cosmos? That’s not clear, to say the least. So isn’t this kind of thing just more of the same? Just more of the starting from human assumptions and wants and needs and likes, and trying to make them cosmic absolutes? We think compassion is good because we suffer so we need it; we think beings like us are good because we are us and we think we are (sort of, more or less) good. It’s all local, it’s all particular, it’s all about us. It’s intuitively appealing, of course, and it may all be true, but there doesn’t really seem to be any compelling reason to think it’s true. The localism is kind of a giveaway of that.

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