"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Gratitude Sans God?

An interesting essay by Ronald Aronson on gratitude and its difficulties for those who don't believe in God or the certainty of historical progress (ala the Marxist). Gratitude seems like a natural and good thing, but it's hard to figure out how to be grateful if what we see around us has no purpose or no purpose-giver. There's a sense that we can either be grateful in theistic terms or simply believe all of life is a lottery and being grateful is nonsensical. He suggests, alternatively, that there are two ways to be grateful still in that absence. First, we can be grateful to the people who came before us and built the culture into which we were born, its language, patterns, etc. all give us a context within which we can live good human lives. Second, we can be grateful that nature itself has provided such rich resources for us to live:

there is an alternative to thanking God on the one hand and seeing the universe as a “cosmic lottery” or as absurd on the other. An alternative to being grateful to a deity or to ignoring such feelings altogether. Think of the sun's warmth. After all, the sun is one of those forces that make possible the natural world, plant life, indeed our very existence. It may not mean anything to us personally, but the warmth on our face means, tells us, and gives us a great deal. All of life on Earth has evolved in relation to this source of heat and light, we human beings included. We are because of, and in our own millennial adaptation to, the sun and other fundamental forces. My moment of gratitude was far more than a moment's pleasure. It is a way of acknowledging one of our most intimate if impersonal relationships, with the cosmic and natural forces that make us possible.


I wouldn't deny that it's possible for non-theists to have genuine feelings of gratitude even beyond the sorts of transactional gratitude everyone experiences every day ("thanks for the coke, here's a dollar..."), but I'm not sure Aronson really shows that non-theistic (or maybe non-purposive) views of the world really get you to defensible claims for gratitude, rather than just a "feeling." After all, when Aronson talks about "impersonal relationships" it's not really a relationship, it's a much more generic connection. The sun would - on his terms - burn just as brightly if we weren't here. We don't have a relationship with the sun, any more than the millions of people who buy tabloids have a relationship with the celebrities they think they know.

Indeed, on Aronson's take, it's hard to figure out how we might have gratitude for the most distinctive thing about us, that we are able to think about whether to actually be grateful or not. Our rationality, our consciousness, our ability to philosophize, so to speak, really sets us off from the rest of nature (so far as we know). In what sense can we be grateful for that thing that goes a long way toward making us "us" if the "us" there is just the product of blind, impersonal, non-purposive processes? Not much, it seems to me.

20 comments:

Matt Huisman said...

From the Wiki:

Gratitude is a positive emotion which involves a feeling of emotional indebtedness towards another person, often accompanied by a desire to thank them or recprocate a favour.

You can't be emotionally indebted to an inanimate object; you need a person. But maybe you're different. Are you implying that your relationship with your computer is the same as it is with your children?

Aronson tries to get away with saying so:

It is a way of acknowledging one of our most intimate if impersonal relationships, with the cosmic and natural forces that make us possible.

Can you really be intimate with a completely random ball of fire?

Isn't it odd that Aronson feels the need to have such intimacy at all?

Matt Huisman said...

Let’s try this again. Gratitude is a feeling that combines appreciation with a sense of obligation – so yes, it’s more than a feeling. You may be pleased with your computer, but you wouldn’t ever get the idea that you ought to thank it for what it does. It's the designers, manufacturers, distributors, etc. that you're grateful towards; their efforts were intended to benefit you.

Aronson, on the other hand, wants to thank the object, the completely random ball of fire. This is, of course, nonsense. Yet he needs to thank something, and it is the only option available to him.

Think about that. He needs to thank something. He recognizes that he is derivative of something else, and is grateful for the significance that has been given to him. Theists say the same thing, only we’re not so ridiculous as to suggest that an inanimate object should be worthy of such praise.

James Elliott said...

I’m sorry, Matt, but this is just so much hogwash. The whole bit proceeds from an assumption of God’s existence. “How can we be grateful without God?” Why do you need God to be grateful? Your “feeling” is no more empirical than anyone else’s - the “need” to be grateful and the act of being grateful are not different from one another, nor is being grateful to one thing over the other. You focus a great deal in your writings on this and related subjects on “need” or “feeling,” as though such subjective impressions are indicative of the conclusion that you want to draw.

“Theists say the same thing, only we’re not so ridiculous as to suggest that an inanimate object should be worthy of such praise.”

No, you suggest that... something... out there... should be given such praise. All this is is a need for a prime mover, The Great Security Blankie in the Sky. Gratitude is not merely an expression of indebtedness; gratitude is an expression of thanks and joy as well, perhaps more so. Instead, you are taking that “indebtedness” - a definition I heartily dispute - and expand it ever outward, always insisting that it have a target. This is silly reductionism. Or, more specifically, how is a sense of gratitude towards God somehow more legitimate than a sense of gratitude to the innumerable processes that resulted in our lives? How is giving that gratitude to the planet, to nature, or to the Big Pink Bunny from Dimension 4Z any different?

It’s not.

Tom Van Dyke said...

It depends, James on whether "thanks" require a recipient. Mr. Simpson suggests the answer is yes.

And if thankfulness is part of man's nature and not just a construct of his confused mind, then we can ask why that is.

In other words, by observing man, we get at least a suggestion that perhaps there's something Greater Than Him. It is an inquiry we must carry forward.

The actual identity of GTH is not at question here. BPB/D4Z fulfills the same role.

Tlaloc said...

"And if thankfulness is part of man's nature and not just a construct of his confused mind"

You say that as if there was a difference between man's mind and his nature.



"In other words, by observing man, we get at least a suggestion that perhaps there's something Greater Than Him."

As James pointed out- only because that's what you were looking for in the first place. The same data can be interpreted multiple ways but you latch onto the one that fits your preconceived world view.

James Elliott said...

Precisely, Tlaloc. Such reasoning is a conclusion in search of supporting evidence, not a conclusion drawn from observation.

Matt Huisman said...

Your “feeling” is no more empirical than anyone else’s - the “need” to be grateful and the act of being grateful are not different from one another…

I believe it was Mr. Aronson that introduced the idea of ‘needing’ to be grateful. He suggested that the failure to recognize this need 'deprive[d] living without God of much of its coherence and meaning'. So I don’t see how I was the one looking for GTH here; if anything, it was Mr. Aronson who was actively looking for a way to avoid 'thanking God on the one hand and seeing the universe as a “cosmic lottery” or as absurd on the other.'

Now Mr. Arnold’s preconceived worldview is quite different than mine, and yet we both read the data as pointed towards a need for gratitude. Here’s a line of his that I can appreciate:

It is as if we live in a profound series of dependencies that dominate our existence but which, outside of religion, we more and more manage to hide from ourselves: dependence on the cosmos, the sun, nature, past generations of people, and human society. Living without God, we should for the first time become intensely clear about all that we do, in fact, rely on.

Here he recognizes our extreme level of dependence. Check. He also recognizes that most of us don’t fully acknowledge just how severe that dependence really is. Again, check. He then concludes that these two factors rob us of the opportunity to express our gratitude. Same data, different worldview, same diagnosis.

Or, more specifically, how is a sense of gratitude towards God somehow more legitimate than a sense of gratitude to the innumerable processes that resulted in our lives?

I have stressed the indebtedness only to highlight the personal component within gratitude. The fact that there are innumerable processes that resulted in our lives is a fluke; it's nice that it happened, but it wasn't intended. But if someone designed them to be there, now we have grounds for gratitude.

If Mr. Aronson wants to believe in flukes, that's fine - he just has to drop the gratitude line. You can't have this one both ways.

James Elliott said...

"If Mr. Aronson wants to believe in flukes, that's fine - he just has to drop the gratitude line. You can't have this one both ways."

Sure you can. Your whole argument is a false dichotomy. You've already decided the answer - you're just constructing nonsense on stilts to support it.

Tom Van Dyke said...

James, you rarely miss the point, but I believe that you have here. (You need not agree with it to get it.) Your offhand dismissal is not in character.

Or perhaps it's frustration. The casual observer would see your last two responses as abandoning the marketplace if not the battlefield of ideas, characterizing some very well-considered (for your consideration) arguments rather than engaging them.

(And of course man's mind and his nature are often in conflict; this is the human equation, and hardly a controversial proposition. One need only read that Shakespeare fellow, who was a master chronicler of that tension. Man is what he is, and often he don't do what he ought. And he often does what he oughtn't.)

Propositions with one does not agree aren't necessarily nonsense. Propositions in our comments section that are nonsense, however, will be deleted hereafter, for the sake of intelligent discussion. Word up.

James Elliott said...

This ridiculous thread follows a familiar pattern:

TRC poster: [unsupported statement]

Tlaloc or me: [thoughtful refutation]

TRC poster: [same unsupported statement, perhaps refuting a
misunderstanding or strawman of the refutation]

Tlaloc or me: [thoughtful refutation]

TRC poster: [same argument, still not addressing refutation]

Tlaloc or me: [frustrated response]

TRC poster: [unwarranted proclamation of victory]

Tlaloc or me: [throws up hands in exasperation and pounds head on keyboard]

Tom Van Dyke said...

I think you have the names backwards, James.

This is the heart of the matter, and you must engage it, or you're not in the game:

"Here and there in the midst of American society you meet with men full of a fanatical and almost wild spiritualism, which hardly exists in Europe. From time to time strange sects arise which en- deavor to strike out extraordinary paths to eternal happiness. Religious insanity is very common in the United States.

Nor ought these facts to surprise us. It was not man who implanted in himself the taste for what is infinite and the love of what is immortal; these lofty instincts are not the offspring of his capricious will; their steadfast foundation is fixed in human nature, and they exist in spite of his efforts. He may cross and distort them; destroy them he cannot."

---Tocqueville, 1835

James Elliott said...

Your response is to quote Pee-Wee Herman? "I know you are but what am I?" Well then I'm rubber, you're glue, and whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.

"To most of us, nothing is so invisible as an unpleasant truth. Though it is held before our eyes, pushed under our noses, rammed down our throats - we know it not."
-Eric Hoffer

Matt Huisman said...

Perhaps we could debate whether frustration itself is universal.

So far two points have been raised:

1) Does man need to be grateful?

2) Can you express gratitude to an inanimate object?

With respect to #1, Mr. Aronson seems to think so. After losing his hope in a secularist future, he now sees gratitude as his last best source of meaning. None of the TRC posters drew this conclusion - Mr. Aronson did. We're just not surprised by it.

Which leads to #2. Mr. Aronson recommends that we express gratitude to a completely random ball of fire, a giant slab of rock, primordial soup, etc. The idea behind this attitude of gratitude is to put all of our problems aside, and simply marvel that we exist at all.

But can we be grateful or intimate with soup? You may be glad that some fluke thing happened, but you don't thank the soup for it.

In the battle of delusions, the Big Pink Bunny has a major advantage - it may actually be there. Soup is a dead end that only seeks to avoid the question of meaning. You get no one to relate to and you're still the result of blind, impersonal, non-purposive processes.

Why bother being grateful for that?

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

But can we be grateful or intimate with soup?

Only in the same way that we are grateful for the little marble falling into 00 at the roulette table.

1) Does man need to be grateful?

I'm avoiding your question, Matt ... sorry!

Is it possible to go through life w/o being grateful at least once? Is being grateful innate?

Matt Huisman said...

The question is not what is innate; rather, what is beneficial?

In this case, we see an atheist who finds gratitude to be an underappreciated (or missing) element in the life of a Soup Nazi. I'm sure the Big Pink Bunny would suggest the same to his followers.

James Elliott said...

Actually, the Big Pink Bunny says that your thinking is twisted and nonsensical.

Matt Huisman said...

I put in a call to Soup, just in case you're right about that.

Haven't heard back yet.

But now that I think about it, why would he. He's got the only gig in town where the customers are actually grateful for the lack of service.

Such a deal.

Lucky Wilbury said...

1) Does man need to be grateful?

2) Can you express gratitude to an inanimate object?


I think there's a confusion here. There's a difference between being grateful and expressing gratitude. You can be grateful for all kinds of things, but expressing gratitude requires, I think, an agent.

I can be grateful that the sun rises without expressing gratitude to the sun.

Or, suppose my leg catches on fire as I'm walking down the road. Then someone drives through a puddle and splashes me, putting out the fire. I would, I think, be grateful that the person drove through the puddle, but I wouldn't feel the need to track them down and express my gratitude.

In short, there are things for which we can be grateful, and there are people to whom we ought to express gratitude. An atheist can do both of these things just fine.

Matt Huisman said...

I can understand the distinction you are making between grateful and gratitude, but in this instance Mr. Aronson is using them interchangeably. He wants us to experience a belonging to nature, history and our fellow man.

And if we fully live our belonging? It is just possible that we will sense the world as alive, brimming over, and demanding of us - the opposite of empty and mute.

Perhaps this belonging is better understood as a form of indebtedness to the cosmos. It's the debt that is significant, as it is what allows us to find meaning without God.

So the answer to #1 is Yes, in order to have meaning, man needs to be more than the recipient of a fluke. He needs to be indebted to a benefactor.

As for #2, it remains to be seen how Soup can be demanding of us, and so I wonder in what meaningful sense we can be grateful to it.

Matt Huisman said...

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