My point here was to given an example of how ways of seeing the world are implicated in the practical choices we need to make in our lives. Among many examples I might have chosen, I considered the act of being grateful for the existence of the cosmos and everything in it. We might call this "cosmic gratitude." I chose this example because I wanted to be clear that some practical decisions are more matters of inner stance than outward action. While being grateful might express itself in concrete gestures (saying “Thank you,” for example), it is first and foremost an internal attitude that one adopts.
And adopting this attitude of cosmic gratitude clearly makes sense if the whole of our reality is seen as the product of loving agency. It might not make sense given certain other ways of seeing--in fact, I'm pretty sure it doesn't. But since I hadn’t thought about the issue deeply enough to decide whether adopting this attitude makes sense only if reality is the product of loving agency, I deliberately chose not to say that.
At this point, as a philosophy teacher, I can’t resist pausing to offer a brief mini-lecture about the kind of basic logic you're likely to learn in a critical thinking course. (And I don't mean to be condescending in doing this. Even those of us who know this stuff quite well can sometimes benefit from taking the time, every once in awhile, to walk through it deliberately, like a novice). A proposition of the form, “If x, then y,” is called a conditional. the statement that appears in place of "x" is often called the antecedent of the conditional, while the statement in the "y" place is called the consequent. Unlike conjunctions ("x and y") and disjunctions ("x or y"), switching the placement of x and y makes a difference.
When you do switch the antecendent and the consequent, what you get (“If y, then x”) is called the converse of the conditional, and it is logically distinct from the original conditional—in other words, they’re saying different things, which means that formally speaking the truth value of a conditional and its converse needn’t be the same.
Unfortunately, things get a bit messy because conditional statements can be expressed in a variety of ways. For example, “If x, then y” is also sometimes worded as “x only if y.” Even though the "if" here appears before the statement in the "y" place, the "only" has a logical function such that "y" is still the consequent. But if someone says, “x if y,” they mean “If y, then x.” In other words, “x if y” is the converse of "if x, then y," and so is the converse of “x only if y.”
To sum it up: "x if y" is the converse of "x only if y." The two are not logically equivalent. Contrast the following: (a) “A thank you letter is polite if you receive a birthday gift”; (b) “A thank you letter is polite only if you receive a birthday gift.” Based on the conventions of etiquette in the US, (a) is true while (b) is false. Likewise, we need to clearly distinguish “Cosmic gratitude makes sense if reality is the product of loving agency” from “Cosmic gratitude makes sense only if reality is the product of loving agency.” It was my intention in the earlier post to say the former (a view which I am confident is true), not the latter (since I haven't considered it carefully enough to say for sure what I think of it).
But it is quite easy on a quick reading of someone’s argument to confuse a conditional statement with its converse--especially when the positioning of the "antecendent" and "consequent" are out of their usual order, as was the case in my earlier post. And, judging by recurring comments on my previous post, many readers apparently did just that. For example, SecularDad asked, “Why can’t someone have this sense of gratitude without belief in a loving agency?” Burk said, “The fact is that we can feel gratitude in any case.. it is all about us, not about the cosmos. We are here, and have feelings, so we can feel gratitude, and do so. The idea that we need a conjured ‘father’ or other totem on the other end, whose existence is, as above, hypothetical at best and utilitiarian in origin ... that is simply absurd.” More cautiously, Bernard said, “I, like Burk, feel hugely grateful for my own existence without having any conception of that beyond the physical, and readily accept it doesn’t work this way for you.”
But even if these comments were sparked by a misreading of my original remark, they raise an interesting set of questions. After all, this cosmic gratitude--this sense of gratitude for one’s existence and for the world in all its mystery and wonder—is a common human experience that seems to cut across religious and philosophical differences. And there is at least some reason to think that this sort of gratitude is healthy. People who cultivate cosmic gratitude (as opposed to very selective gratitude) are more likely to be at peace with themselves and their lives, even if things aren’t perfect.
Given the ubiquity and value of this attitude, it is worth digging deeper into the conditions for its coherence. What I said explicitly in my earlier post was that such cosmic gratitude is coherent under the traditional theistic view that existence is a gift of love. Given this way of seeing things, cosmic gratitude “makes sense.” Implicitly, of course, my remark suggested that there might be ways of seeing things where such gratitude wouldn’t make sense. (While I’ll resist another critical thinking mini-lecture, I will point out that this latter suggestion emerges based on principles of “conversational implication”: In ordinary conversation, one doesn’t typically point out that A is true under condition B if one thinks A is true under ALL conditions—and so, while one cannot make this assumption in formal logic, when someone asserts a conditional it is usually fair in conversation to impute to them the belief that the “consequent” of the conditional isn’t true under all conditions.)
In any event, I think it is pretty clear that there are ways of seeing reality such that, given those ways of seeing, an attitude of cosmic gratitude makes little sense. Here's an example: Suppose you see the cosmos and everything in it as the product of a supremely powerful Devil who created the universe solely for the sake of having targets for his malevolence. Everything exists purely so that this supreme Devil can achieve his goal of a universe teeming with endless conscious torment of the worst conceivable kind. And this Devil, being supremely powerful, will not fail to achieve this goal: In the end, every conscious being will be brought to a state of eternal suffering so horrific that it would have been better not to have existed at all. Those who at present enjoy their lives, who experience love and happiness, are afforded this glimpse of goodness only for the sake of making possible some special sort of torment later: perhaps the torment of having precious goods decisively and permanently ripped away, or the anguish of witnessing the crushing ruin of loved ones, etc. Ultimate affliction, we might suppose, is so much worse when there are points of contrast, so that endless, hopeless yearning for lost love and joy can be an additional source of anguish in the Devil’s arsenal.
And yes, I am fully aware of just how close this worldview I’m describing is to views actually embraced by some Christians—specifically, strict double-predestination Calvinists, as well as those who see eternal hell as the fate of all those who die without having explicitly accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior. In fact, I think an important objection to such versions of Christianity might be built around what I am saying in this post. But I won't develop that argument now.
My point here is this: If you see the joys of this life as fleeting moments in a whole existence definitively stripped of worth by neverending, soul-crushing anguish--and if, furthermore, you see the purpose of existence to be the realization of such states of torment in every conscious being--well, it hardly makes sense to adopt a stance of cosmic gratitude for existence. If, by contrast, you think that the sufferings of this life, no matter how serious, are but fleeting moments in a whole existence definitively imbued with worth by neverending, soul-uplifitng goods--and if, furthermore, you see the purpose of existence to be the bestowal of such goods on every conscious being--well, it clearly makes sense to adopt a stance of cosmic gratitude.
But these extremes are hardly the only two options. There are numerous alternatives, some of which make cosmic gratitude coherent, others of which don't. The interesting question raised by the comments on my previous post is whether you need to see the cosmos as having loving agency at its root--whether, in other words, you need to see the cosmos as a benevolent creation--in order for cosmic gratitude to be a coherent response to existence.
In addressing this question, I first want to consider a line of argument that won't work. Specifically, the argument that of course gratitude makes sense without adopting this condition, because we exist and have feelings, and so can feel gratitude, and may do so. This won't work because the question is not whether we can feel cosmic gratitude no matter how we see the universe. The question is whether cosmic gratitude makes sense no matter how we see the universe. It is a question of coherence--over whether every way of seeing the universe can coherently undergird a grateful attitude.
I've already argued that seeing the universe as wholly the product of malevolent agency can't be coherently conjoined with cosmic gratitude. But few see the world in such a hideous way (although it may prove to be more common than one might think, once one digs below the surface of certain theistic beliefs). The more interesting question is whether gratitude makes sense given a naturalistic worldview. And here, rather than try to give an answer of my own, I want to consider something Bart Ehrman has to say on the matter.
For those unfamiliar with Ehrman, he is a religious studies scholar who has authored a number of highly successful popularizations of work in biblical studies. In one of those works, God's Problem, Ehrman devotes several pages to reflecting on his own deconversion from evangelical Christianity--a process that occurred in stages, and that took him from a "Bible-believing" Christian intent on saving souls from damnation, to being a progressive Christian, to being an agnostic who views the Bible as wholly a human artifact. In discussing this deconversion process, he reflects on some of its more painful aspects. One of those aspects has to do with gratitude. Here is what he says:
Another aspect of the pain I felt when I eventually became an agnostic...involves another deeply rooted attitude that I have and simply can't get rid of, although in this case, it's an attitude that I don't really want to get rid of. And it's something I never would have expected to be a problem when I was still a believer. The problem is this: I have such a fantastic life that I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for it; I am fortunate beyond words. But I don't have anyone to express my gratitude to. This is a void deep inside me, a void of wanting someone to thank, and I don't see any plausible way of filling it.Now let me stress here that I'm not at all sure that Ehrman is talking here about cosmic gratitude, that is, the sense of gratitude for existence as such--both one's own and the existence of the universe. It seems to be more a case of gratitude for the kind of existence that he has come to enjoy. We might call this "specific gratitude." And he rightly notes, a bit later on, that this species of gratitude is problematic. As Ehrman puts it, "If I have food because God has given it to me, then don't others lack food because God has chosen not to give it to them? By saying grace, wasn't I in fact charging God with negligence, or favoritism?"
These concerns are, of course, bound up with the problem of evil--which is Ehrman's focus in God's Problem. And it seems to me that the theist's only escape from these concerns is to deny that God is directly responsible for the precise distribution of blessings and challenges in this life. If this is right, then gratitude for specific blessings may not make sense within a coherent theistic framework.
But my concern here is with cosmic gratitude, and with the question of whether seeing the world as the product of loving agency is a necessary condition for such gratitude to make sense. And here, a different aspect of Ehrman's discussion becomes relevant. Specifically, gratitude is a feeling with what might be called a "double-intentionality." There's what we're grateful for, but there's also who we're grateful to. Is gratitude possible without the latter? And can the object of the latter be anything other than an agent who meant well in providing what one is grateful for?
If not, then while an atheist or agnostic might be happy for existence, or take delight in it, or have feelings that are in some sense analogous to gratitude, they couldn't be genuinely grateful (at least not coherently so). And that would mean that anyone who was genuinely grateful for existence itself would thereby be operating, at least implicitly, as if there were someone to be grateful to: an agency responsible for existence itself.
But this conclusion follows only if we give negative answers to the questions I just posed (Is gratitude possible without the latter? And can the object of the latter be anything other than an agent?). So--what do you think of these two questions?