2/22/10

Are You Grateful for Your Existence?

Alexander Pruss writes here that it would distort one's understanding of the parent-child relationship to believe children simply come from parents (as the "proximate agential causes of their existence"), rather than from God.  If you read the comments, it becomes clear that the distortion he has in mind is that godless parents will (should?) think their children owe them gratitude for their existence. 

As soon as I read this clarification, I turned to my children (two 12-year olds) and asked if they were grateful to me for their existence (since it's out of the question that they're grateful to any supreme being).  They both immediately said no.  "Really, not at all?" I asked.  Reply from my daughter: "Not with our cell phone plan."  Frown.

Pressed to explain why she's not grateful to me for her existence, my daughter made the point that she'd been alive all her life.   I do see her point.  The truth is, most of us take our existence as something that couldn't have been otherwise. In our own eyes, we are "necessary beings."

Even when we confront the reality that we are not necessary at all--and in fact highly improbable-- gratitude doesn't ensue, or even seem logical.  Why should I be grateful to my parents for making me exist when they didn't the least bit have me in mind?  I may as well be grateful to the Texas State Lottery if one day they decide to award a prize to any Texas resident, chosen at random, and I happen to be the winner.

My next step was to find out if my kids are glad they exist--glad in the fulsome*, ebullient sense. Think Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Answer: yes from one.  "Other than AT&T, yes" from the other.

So: not grateful for their existence, but still glad.  I find their attitude perfectly reasonable.  I think I'm owed a little more gratitude for our cellphone service, which I consider more than adequate, but I don't believe they should be thankful to their parents for "making" them.

If some theists are thankful to God for their existence, why don't atheists have to be thankful to their parents for their existence?  Well, reproduction and creature-creating are completely dissimilar processes.  There's no reason at all why offspring should feel toward their parents what some theists feel (whatever that might be) toward their creators.

* Reply to email:
Fulsome is often used to mean "offensively flattering or insincere." But the word is also used, particularly in the expression fulsome praise, to mean simply "abundant," without any implication of excess or insincerity. This usage is etymologically justified but may invite misunderstandings in contexts in which a deprecatory interpretation could be made. The sentence I offer you my most fulsome apologies may raise an eyebrow, where the use of an adjective like full or abundant would leave no room for doubt as to the sincerity of the speaker's intentions. [American Heritage Dictionary]
I think I'm good here, though I admit I wasn't quite sure when I wrote it!

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

While an all-knowing God (who exists beyond time, if that makes any sense) could do something for somebody who doesn't exist yet, I don't see how human parents can do something for somebody who doesn't exist (yet). So I can be grateful for the fact that they gave me food, love and education, but not that created me. They created somebody, who turned out to be me (like in your lottery example)

gio

Tea said...

I see absolutely no reason to think that believing that someone is responsible for your existence distorts your relationship with them - but if that's true, doesn't it follow that believing that god made them distorts theists' relationship with god?

Faust said...

No Tea that doesn't follow, at least not as the argument presented. The distortion is precisely that the cause is confused. God causes existence not parent. Ergo, to think that your parents are the cause of your existence is to be confused about the true cause of your exisence. The theist is not confused (on this view) because they ascertain the true cause of their existence. It would only be a distortion if there was a God behind God, in which case you would of course be worshiping the wrong God, and would want to move higher up the chain.

All of the preceding is really just a gloss on idolatry. You want to be worshiping the highest God, and parents just aren't going to cut it. Course, Jesus and Allah might not cut it either.

Jean Kazez said...

But wait...

I think the distortion Pruss has in mind is not a child misidentifying the cause of his existence (though that too). He's worried about children having a type of gratitude to their parents for their existence that would bring about ... what? Well, some sort of extreme inequality. The child bowing down, feeling like he owes much to much to mom and dad, stuff like that.

My response is that children don't actually feel this gratitude to their parents for their existence, and also don't rationally have to.

Tea, I think maybe Pruss is thinking it's OK for people to feel this sort of gratitude to God for their existence, because it's perfectly appropriate for there to be great inequality between humans and God, and not harmful. God won't take advantage of it, whereas a parent might. But that's all just speculation.

Jean Kazez said...

Aha, so now I've read his previous post.

http://alexanderpruss.blogspot.com/2010/02/god-and-love.html

What he says there is that there's got to be a defect in the way atheists love their children because they don't believe their children were created by God.

Good heavens. I just think "reason" is not at work here, but some sort of intense need to undermine. There's nothing more insulting and personally wounding than saying someone else doesn't love their children properly.

Atheists don't love their children properly? Excuse me--I think I'm going to vomit.

Wayne said...

Jane English wrote a fairly persuasive essay on this topic, What do adult children owe their parents? Now her essay in particular deals with obligatory relationships (that there are none), and not quite "gratefulness" but I think the two are similar enough. If I did need to be grateful, it would follow that I would have some obligations towards them (slightly above a minimal obligation sense).

amos said...

I certainly feel gratitude towards my parents for my existence, not for conceiving me, but for raising me, which involved a lot of hassle and expense on their part.

amos said...

My existence, me being me, by the way, is not just biological, but involves my education, my upbringing, my childhood socialization, all of which I owe in part to my parents. In fact, their generosity and my gratitude is greater insofar as I turned out to be a person with whom they are uncomfortable and who is uncomfortable around them.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, I think Pruss is using the word "existence" in a much narrower sense. It's the same sense involved when we debate whether or not God exists. So the question is whether we are/should be grateful to our parents for our (sheer) existence, if we believe they (not God) are the the proximate cause of our existence. It's another question whether we ought to be grateful to our parents for specific things they did for us (like getting us cellphone service...ahem).

Wayne, Thanks for that--I've never read that article, and should.

Wayne said...

Here's a link to the essay:
http://tinyurl.com/ycvr2tf

Faust said...

I wonder what Pruss thinks about Luke 14:26.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust--take pity on the biblically illiterate. What does it say?

Faust said...

If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

Wayne said...

I was about to scold you Faust for quoting things without presenting context.... but then I read Luke 14, and I'll be damned if there really isn't much context to it besides that Jesus is saying if you are a follow of him, you have to hate your family.....

amos said...

That's precisely my point: we don't just "exist". We exist as
philosophy students, as Chileans, as members of the middle class, as atheists, as vegetarians; we exist in situation, as Sartre says. To speak of just "existing" is meaningless.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, You can't exist without having a lot of properties, but you can think about each property, and existence, separately and they have varying origins. So we can ask whether we are grateful to our parents for our sheer existence, and then go on to other matters. It's sheer existence Pruss is addressing.

Re: Luke. Hmm, I think I'm going to stick with heathenish parenting. I love Bart Ehrman's book about Jesus (Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of a New Millenium)--it focuses a lot on that anti-family stuff.

amos said...

To talk of "sheer" existence to imagine an abstract and meaningless property. In fact, didn't Kant say that existence is not a predicate?

Wayne said...

amos existence isn't a predicate, but if you do exist, you must have predicates, or you woud be nothing at all. So think of something that does exist.... it has some predicates/qualities (what they are, is irrelevant

amos said...

Wayne, if I think of myself as existing, I cannot imagine myself as existing outside of my situation (or without my predicates, to use your terms), unless I imagine myself as existing in another situation or with other predicates. What is impossible is to think of is my self as existing outside of a situation or without predicates, unless I posit the existence of a soul and I don't believe that there is a soul. Thus, when I am grateful for existing, I am grateful for existing as I am, in a situation or with predicates, and that situation is partly the result of my parent's generosity, for which I am grateful. In fact, my situation is partly the result of my dialogues with you, Wayne, and thus, I should extend my gratitude for existing as my self to you. Thank you.

faust said...

Well played Amos.

amos said...

Faust: Thank you.

Jean Kazez said...

When you ask if you're grateful for existing (to your parents, to God, to whomever) you do so with a sense of who you are, what you're like, what's happened to you over time. If it's all awful, you might not be glad you exist, let alone grateful to anyone for your existence. Still--there's a question here that's not about any specific property you have, but about...existence. That's a perfectly good concept, and extremely useful!

Maybe this comes through more clearly in a different setting. A doctor saves your life. Afterward, you might feel grateful to him for your (continued) existence. This is not unintelligible or meaningless. You might be grateful to him for other properties you now have as well, but there's nothing stopping you from appreciating the fact that he's responsible for the fact that you still exist.

So--I don't see that issues about existence vs. properties stop it from making sense to be grateful to God or parents for my existence. There are other reasons why I'm not grateful to my parents for my existence, but not that!

amos said...

You assume there is an "I", a self, which is independent of its properties, of its situation,
and there is no such entity.

Jean Kazez said...

That's an awfully complicated issue, and I don't really see the relevance here. The issue is not whether I am grateful to my parents for a separable, featureless self (that I may or may not possess). The issue is whether I am grateful to my parents for my existence. I could have all sorts of theories about personal identity (what I am, what makes me me) and still ask the question.

amos said...

I agree with your last past and if you back-track to my first post in this thread, you'll see that I am grateful to my parents for my existence. The argument began when you began to talk about "sheer" existence and I denied that it is meaningful to talk about "sheer" existence. Otherwise, we agree 100%.

rtk said...

Gratitude is so over-rated. So your mother wanted to be pregnant. What do you have to do - say Thank you? So your father played a mean game of poker and now you get an A in math. Thanks a lot, Dad. I'm just acting out the script that may or may not have come with my dna. Who way down the line gets credit for that?

As for loving one's kid, is there one of you who believes for one second that your parents loved you like you love your children. It's inconceivable (so to speak). And your kids will someday be just the same, certain that their love for their children exceeds any experience they had as children.