Yesterday as I was finishing up a blog post, I surprised myself with these words: "And although the heart is quite easily intimidated by the head, I think one sees more clearly through it than through any power of reason." I admit this is not obviously true. When we consider the kinds of debates that occur on the Internet, we find most people swept away by their own feelings rather than committed to rational inquiry. At the same time, no one wants to admit that the heart is overpowering the head. They will argue by telling you what books or articles they have read. They will criticize your intelligence, not your gut instinct. They will give you their credentials, rather than admitting that what they are saying is simply what they want to be true. In other words, the heart is never secure in its beliefs; it always needs the head to bring the appropriate amount of intimidation.
Atheism is born of skepticism, and skepticism is essentially a moral principle. We must not accept a claim simply because we would like it to be true, or because many other people accept it. Rigorously applied, this leads us to question all hope, including and perhaps especially that of eternal life. Even if everyone would naturally like to live forever (and in fact this is apparently not the case), that is not a good enough reason to think eternal life is real.
I think all of us accept this principle, but then it is a question of rigorous application. We realize we need the head to discipline the heart, because the heart is so easily confused. But I think that if the head finally wins out, so that it no longer serves the heart by its discipline but instead becomes a tyrant over it, then we are just as lost as if we allowed the heart to abandon the head.
It is true that the truth is not always what we want to hear, but how can the truth be devoid of anything good? In that case I don't see why we shouldn't abandon it. It is only because of an ingrained moral principle that we insist on seeking the truth. By what argument will we insist on upholding this moral principle when the truth has nothing good to offer?
I remember an argument we had in a philosophy class in college. We had a speaker give a presentation on altruism and the "free rider problem" in evolutionary biology. The basic idea is that the presence of altruism in any species is somewhat remarkable, because altruists expose themselves to greater danger of extinction relative to those who benefit from their altruism. Some of my classmates objected that in the human species, at any rate, we never see any genuine altruism. Instead, we only see people motivated by some reward--eternal life, perhaps, or maybe just the good feeling of being morally superior, or even just the feeling of being good (even without the superiority).
Now, my classmates thought they were being very clever. I think they were being idiots. Someone who acts unselfishly for no reason whatsoever is not a "true altruist" but a robot. A true altruist has some vision of the good and pursues it. To be unselfish simply means to act for the sake of others, rather than thinking of one's own needs first. That one does so thinking that it leads to eternal life does not diminish its value, but rather shows that one believes there is justice in the universe. For if altruism is ultimately rewarded by a cold, empty universe in which no one exists to even tell the tale of such deeds, what was the point of doing it at all?
Of course one need not believe in eternal life in order to have some vision of the good. One might consider that the propagation of the human species as long as possible is an end worth pursuing. Or there may be other candidates. But in any case, we are motivated by this fundamental good, which we hope will be realized.
I see very little appeal to the idea that truth is good for its own sake, except insofar as it is beautiful. But not all truth is beautiful. In mathematics, I find many truths beautiful; but there are many facts in life which I find boring or burdensome, and not at all beautiful.
And as for the ultimate truth about the destiny of the universe... It is true that we cannot simply wish it to be good. But if we are convinced that our destiny is bad, what argument do we have that finding out the truth was even a worthwhile pursuit? In what way does it help us to know that everything we do will come to nothing?
Not everything is truly good. Many of the things we cling to with the heart are only distortions of what is good. Political visions tend to fall into this category. We develop a theory of a just society and seek to impose it on others, not realizing that what we have is an imperfect vision of the good. In that case the head must come to discipline the heart, pointing out that what we thought was good is not consistent with other things which we know are good. The head demands consistency from the heart, and so disciplines it until it arrives at its true destination.
But for the head to stamp out all hope, so that the heart no longer has a destination, is to render life absurd. It is not because the Bible is primitive that it holds out promises of life and death. Moses does not say, "Choose truth," but rather, "Choose life, so that you may live." That is the ultimate wisdom. Truth does not exist for its own sake, but rathe for the sake of life, which is the ultimate good.
So while I believe that the world could always use a large dose of rationalism to correct for its excessive laziness in thinking about what is good, at some point the rationalist must allow the heart to keep itself from being crushed by the head. If this sounds like vain optimism or even sentimentalism, I can only reply that it doesn't make sense to me to live otherwise. I prefer vain optimism to hopeless futility.