Saturday, May 17, 2014

Materialism and Concern about the Future of Our Species

If, as Carl Sagan said, the cosmos (matter) is all that is or was or will be, then concern about the future of our species -- and hence concern about climate change and zombie apocalypses alike -- doesn't make any sense.

Let me explain.

My favorite contemporary director is Christopher Nolan; way before his Batman trilogy saw the light of day, I'd been enthralled by Memento. Later, I was similarly taken by The Prestige and Inception. This year, I'm looking forward to Interstellar, due out this November, and just the other day we were treated to the first (non-teaser) trailer, in which we get a glimpse of what this movie is about: "As Michael Caine tells hero Matthew McConaughy in the new trailer, mankind 'isn’t meant to save the world' in the wake of what appears to be a natural disaster that has meant an end to food production on Earth, but instead leave the planet in search of new beginnings" (HR).

As I was reading various responses to and interpretations of the trailer, I came across this post, in which the writer comments on the apparent natural disaster that originates the plot of the movie:

I completely buy the trailer's vision of a future weather and resource global crisisThe global data is unquestionable. Man-made or not, I don't care, the fact is that climate change ishappening. It's drastic and it's accelerating, and we may not be able to stop it at this point.
Computer simulations show that we are headed to a place where humanity hasn't been before. The projections are so bad that the military have deemed it a national security threat already. And trust me, the men and women of the Pentagon are not tree-hugging hippies.
As climate changes, everything changes. We are already seeing the effects on agriculture, with ruined crops and food scarcity in many parts of the world. Or better said, we are not seeing it—people who live in third world countries are. Our oceans' fisheries are also dwindling quickly, with many species on the verge of exhaustion.
Combine this with the millions of poor people getting out of poverty conditions in China, India, South America and Africa. They are consuming more and more of resources that are already scarce. More food. More energy. More oil. More everything. Even if the population doesn't go up, the demand will keep increasing at a fast rate. It's not going to stop.
Still, I'm an optimistic person who thinks that science may save us at the last minute. Perhaps that's Nolan's thesis—or perhaps it's the contrary. We don't really know yet. But I have no doubt that we are headed into this direction.

As this citation as well as the rest of the post make clear, the author believes strongly that there will be very dangerous consequences for humanity as climate change continues to unfold. As I thought about this passage and similar views held by others, I was struck by the incongruence between the materialists' belief that matter is all there ever was, is and will be and their simultaneously-held deep concern for the future of the human race. After all, we're all going to die at some point... if this life is all there is, why does it matter if we all die at (about) the same time in some extinction level event? If materialism is true, there is no logical reason for me to be concerned about the fate of the human race. For that matter, if materialism is true, there is no logical reason for me to be "concerned" about my fate: that I will someday die is a cold, hard fact, and it's irrational to struggle against it. (A separate yet even more important point is this: concern about my own fate or that of any other person or group of persons is -- given the materialist view of reality -- irrational because the human being is nothing more than a particular grouping of atoms... why favor this type of grouping over any other? Simply put, the concept of human dignity is meaningless in the materialist conception of reality.)

Let me be clear: I am not arguing that we ought not be concerned about climate change and its consequences, nor am I arguing that we ought not be concerned about the fate of the human race. My point is simple: if materialism is true, there is no rational basis for concern about the future of our species, and hence for concern about climate change.

What do you think? Does my argument fail, and if so, where?


Fr. Andrew said...

Does materialism necessarily negate self-preservation? Isn't that your argument? "if materialism is true, there is no logical reason for me to be "concerned" about my fate: that I will someday die is a cold, hard fact, and it's irrational to struggle against it."

I don't think that is an accurate conclusion. There is the fight/flight instinct. So when seeing these larger threats it is proper that a rational response would be to fight or to fly.

Chris Burgwald said...

I think materialism negates self-preservation in the sense that it cannot provide a rational basis for self-preservation; that we seek & strive to live is undeniable, but that fact cannot be regarded as rational within the materialist worldview.