A reminder to all "Abandon Text!" readers: if you're not reading the comments, you're missing half the fun. (Maybe even two-thirds of the fun, since Kenny can usually say twice as much as I do in half the space.)
In response to my critique of Felder's Wager (a philosophy I myself believe in and practice, I should remind everyone), Kenny writes:
Imagine that you see a rock, teetering on the edge of a cliff. There is no one below the cliff, who might be hit. There is, in fact, no one around but you. It's not a particularly big rock, not part of any structure, etc. So you can go put the rock back on the cliff in a more stable place, or you can throw it off the side of the cliff, or you can just leave the whole thing alone. Here is my question: do you have any moral or ethical reason to do any of the above?
Well, sure you do, if you imagine that the rock is trying to launch itself off the cliff. That's what it looks like, when you look at it that way: like Tantalus, it keeps straining for the edge, but can't quite get there. Life is probably a lot better down at the bottom of the cliff, it reasons. So you really ought to help it out and give it a toss.
But of course, all that is completely fanciful. Really, the rock doesn't care one way or the other. You get no ethical high marks, or demerits either, no matter what you do.
And here's the point of this unnecessarily-lengthy analogy. In a purely material world, everything and everyone is just like that rock. A small child is "trying" to get some food? Not really, that's just a fanciful way of putting it. What's really happening is a complex series of mechanical, electrical, and chemical reactions that all lead the child to move its legs, hold out its arms, and act for all the world as if it really matters if it gets the food. Those physical events are the whole story: anything else we add to them is self-indulgent anthropomorphism. Maybe the child gets the food and lives, maybe it doesn't and dies, and as Dr. Manhattan says, a dead body contains roughly the same number of molecules as a living one, so what's the diff?
If nothing matters, then nothing matters.
Ok, this is good, because we've teased out something that wasn't in the original description of Felder's Wager. Let's break out the argument into pieces:
Meaning and morality are related and tied together. In order for life to be meaningful, it must somehow conform to a moral order, a way things ought to be. Meaning derives from the degree to which a life makes the universe more like it ought to be (or at least tries to).
Morality requires people. It's not enough that something happens (e.g. a rock falling off a cliff); there has to be someone who intends to do something that affects someone else (e.g. a Red Cross volunteer gives food to an earthquake victim in Haiti) to aid or thwart their desires. Philosophers would call that someone – an entity that has desires and acts with intention to fulfill those desires -- an agent. So, morality requires agency.
Agency is not possible in a totally material world. There is no agent at work in a materialist's brain, just pieces of matter bouncing into each other.
If there is no agency in a totally material world, then there is no morality, and therefore no meaning. Therefore, a totally material world is a meaningless world.
This argument has some problems.
One of the things we were trying to prove or disprove is whether consciousness, awareness, and/or agency -- whatever it is that we think is essential to personhood – can arise from purely physical computational processes or not. But Step #3 of the argument above takes it as a given that agency cannot arise from purely physical means. So, it's trying to use its conclusion as one of its premises. It's begging the question.
As I've understood Kenny's arguments so far, the experiential, phenomenological, direct evidence from meditation is that consciousness is NOT thoughts, NOT feelings, NOT desires. Those are all perceived as mechanical processes that happen on their own, and that a person's true identity is the observer of those thoughts, feelings, and desires. That would suggest that agency IS possible in a purely physical world. Moreover, even if you succeed in the spiritual enterprise of demonstrating awareness is non-material, you have demonstrated that awareness has nothing whatsoever to do with the process of agency, which was supposedly the basis of morality and meaning. So, instead of being a physical body stuck in a meaningless mechanical universe -- congratulations! -- you're now a non-material ghost stuck in an equally meaningless mechanical universe. How exactly is that any better?