Sometimes I think we give ourselves too much credit in our "modern" world.
Sometimes I think we think that just because we are more scientifically advanced, we have new and better insight into the questions of reality, morality, etc.
Sometimes I think we are woefully ignorant of the past and believe people in previous eras were simpletons because they did not have the scientific knowledge we have today.
I think this is a massive mistake. Humankind has been wrestling with such questions for thousands of years.
Such a thing was refreshed in my mind as I watched a few youtube debates between believers and atheists regarding what happens after death. The big question of morality always comes up. Why be moral if there is no God? Why be moral if there is no eternal justice?
Nietzsche took this to its logical, philosophical conclusion and said, "No reason for morality. These things are just socially constructed. All is relative."
Some atheists agree. Some do not. Some want to say there are indeed universal morals. But the evidence for such things actually is quite slim. Sure, there seems to be, across cultures the idea of do unto others as you would have them do unto you, but there is also a universality in that the axiom is not followed.
Richard Dawkins himself adheres to the principle that this universal morality indeed is in culture and that evolution has helped us discover it. Yet, he still is willing to stand in front of thousands of people and tell them to publicly mock people of faith. Interestingly enough, I find, Dawkins doesn't appreciate being mocked himself. Apparently hypocrisy is not simply a phenomenon relegated to church going people.
But why even try if there is no life after death? Why even seek to do and be good if there is no judgment?
One could argue that one should do that which is good for the sake of it being good. But if one looks at the universe, at nature, at the reality of how living organisms interact, the only reason to be good is not for the sake of being good but for one's own self interest.
And that becomes the basic argument for most morality--my self interest or the self interest of the human species.
Yet, there is a problem in that. For would it not be in the self interest of the species to quarantine those who have any nasty communicable disease so that it would not spread? Would it not have been in the self interest of the species to eradicate the first man who contracted the AIDS virus so that no one else might have gotten it? We eradicate animals who have rabies so that they do not spread the disease. If man is no different than an animal, why not do the same? What makes human life so special that there is one set of rules in nature yet another set of rules in society?
Well, it's honestly because our morality isn't based in nature or in societal whim. Most of western morality is rooted and grounded in the Christian tradition, and that Christian tradition has dealt with the question of what the reality of life would be if there were no life after death.
St. Paul famously wrote in 1 Corinthians 15 verse 32: "If with merely human hopes I fought with wild animals at Ephesus, what would I have gained by it? If the dead are not raised, 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'"
If there is no life after death, let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die. If this life is all there is to live for, might as well enjoy it to the max. There is no rhyme. There is no reason. There is no purpose. All indeed is vanity as the writer of Ecclesiastes said. Might as well get as much as we can, live high on the hog, and enjoy whatever pleasure we can possibly enjoy. Nihilism. Plain and simple. It was around long before Nietzsche.
We would do well, I think, to give credence to those thinkers in the past. There really isn't much new that is under the sun.