On Non-Nihilistic “Scientific” Atheism

Nobel laureate in physics Steven Weinberg recently revamped his 2008 Phi Beta Kappa Oration at Harvard University for an essay entitled “Without God” in The New York Review of Books. As the essay moves toward a close, Weinberg tells us:

the worldview of science is rather chilling. Not only do we not find any point to life laid out for us in nature, no objective basis for our moral principles, no correspondence between what we think is the moral law and the laws of nature, of the sort imagined by philosophers from Anaximander and Plato to Emerson. We even learn that the emotions that we most treasure, our love for our wives and husbands and children, are made possible by chemical processes in our brains that are what they are as a result of natural selection acting on chance mutations over millions of years. And yet we must not sink into nihilism or stifle our emotions. At our best we live on a knife-edge, between wishful thinking on one hand and, on the other, despair.
What, then, can we do?

Answering his own rhetorical question, Dr. Weinberg believes

that the first thing we need is a healthy dose of humor, beauty, inspiration, and honor. Regarding the need for humor, Weinberg rightly notes that,

In some of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, just when the action is about to reach an unbearable climax, the tragic heroes are confronted with some “rude mechanical” offering comic observations: a gravedigger, or a doorkeeper, or a pair of gardeners, or a man with a basket of figs. The tragedy is not lessened, but the humor puts it in perspective.

In addition, we can seek beauty in the high arts and find inspiration in beautiful poetry. Yet in the end,

Living without God isn’t easy. But its very difficulty offers one other consolation–that there is a certain honor, or perhaps just a grim satisfaction, in facing up to our condition without despair and without wishful thinking–with good humor, but without God.

As a young man, I was enamored with Jean-Paul Sartre and the existentialists. When I got to college, I found that Nietzsche was greater than them all. Even though by this time I had come do disagree with their metaphysics, I admired their courage to live intellectually honest, consistent, and honorable lives.
But one day it dawned on me–as I believe it will one day dawn on Dr. Weinberg–that speaking of honesty, courage, and honor as though they were actually objectively honest, courageous, and honorable was inconsistent with naturalistic metaphysics. If you asked Nietzsche why one should forge his own way rather than follow herd morality, I believe he would have answered: “Are you kidding? Think about it. Which one would you prefer? Wouldn’t you prefer this noble enterprise of making your own way? Oh, well maybe you wouldn’t, Gage, you wretched sheep! Baaaahhhhhh!”
Or at least that’s how I imagine him speaking. But, this is simply not convincing. The whole notion of an honorable and noble existence is a residue of Christendom that Nietzsche should have recognized and rejected.
And the same goes for Weinberg. The first question he should ask himself is why, if we live in a naturalistic universe, did it produce humans with a need to cope with a naturalistic universe? I mean, why does Weinberg feel so out of place? Shouldn’t he feel at home if naturalism is the true metaphysic?
Moreover, Weinberg must understand that his coping mechanism (a heavy cocktail of humor, beauty, inspiration, and honor) is not the panecea for which he hopes. He is not being consistent here. If Weinberg can explain away religion and all other things as Darwinian adaptations…what does he think humor, beauty, inspiration, and honor are? Why is it that only traditional religion and morality are seen as undermined by the Darwinian mechanism? Looks to me like things he likes are reduced to mere chemicals in the brain while things he enjoys–like the inspiration he gets from Philip Larkin’s poetry–he is unwilling to reduce.
Weinberg is trying to have his Darwinian atheism on the cheap. He cannot maintain that the universe has no inherent meaning, is essentially nihilistic, and still hold on to a handful of meaningful, comforting pleasures as though they had real value. To retain all of his physicalist reductionist explanations, his panacea must also be reduced.
Conversely, for Dr. Weinberg to have a truly courageous existence, courage must be real. Some of us may take comfort in the fact that Weinberg’s Shakespearean analogy, if it holds any lesson for us, tells us that humor–far from being a meaningless adaptation–is real, for it was intended by intelligent design.