Agence France-Presse yesterday published a lovely photograph of lightning’s striking the cupola of Saint Peter’s Basilica hours after Pope Benedict XVI announced his forthcoming retirement: “Coup de tonnerre sur le Vatican.”
Several media outlets have covered it in tandem with their own papal retirement stories. As usual, I read the articles’ comments for the occasional amusing or insightful note. “Nick” commented on the Skye (AOL Weather) post:
It’s no coincidence that lightning struck the cross on top of the Vatican the day the pope announces his resignation. But people do not want to believe in a higher power so will do anything to write it off as coincidence. Even if God came down and sat on the roof they would say he was a cloud or something.
I smiled at the last line; it is true. Nick’s comment reminds me of “How the Dwarfs Refused to be Taken In” from The Last Battle. And the parable of the rich man and Lazarus makes the point more bluntly. My friend Andrew often refers to this vivid depiction of spiritual blindness by Lewis, and I think of it whenever I deal with skeptics. How many times have we heard atheists ridicule God as a groundless, superfluous fantasy? They are tragically like Lewis’ dwarfs (dwarves!) who cannot see the abundance of evidence all around them.
Concerning the lightning bolt at the Vatican yesterday, Humean skepticism has a point. Lightning happens, and men appear to impose interpretations on this rather regular occurrence when it is in their minds to do so. In other words, we only see meaning when we are looking for it. However, that does not rule out inherent meaning. If the world is intelligible, then I do not find it absurd that seemingly “independent” phenomena would intersect in ways that we recognize as “signs.” Coincidence? Well, coincidence is a way of describing events that appear unrelated to us, though no events are truly unrelated. It is just that our human perspectives are quite limited. I deal with a similar idea in “Meyer’s Intelligent Design,” and I elaborate further in “Is God an Accident?”:
I marvel at how clever creatures can draw explanatory principles from the empty well of chance. Chance does not explain; chance merely signifies the complicated levels on which intentional agents experience reality. With apologies to Aristotle, allow me to talk about my fictional pals, Bob and Matt. Bob the bartender owes Matt the Maytag repairman money that he intends to pay him when he sees him again. One day, Bob goes to Best Buy to buy his belle, Betty Sue, a microwave oven. Matt happens to be at Best Buy trying to catch up on the latest developments in the laundry machine trade. Bob sees Matt and pays him. We can say that Bob’s paying Matt when he did was the result of chance. There was agency by both men, but the result of their intended ends was not intended by either one of them. Chance explains an element in the story.
Yet, note that chance only indicates how the intended actions of two agents interelated in a wider theater than their own perspectives. When we consider a theater as wide as reality, what role does chance play? Is it not simply what we might call the order of being’s manifesting itself in motion? When people speak of chance, they often mean random and unpredictable. Yet, we observe everywhere the tendencies of nature and the probability of phenomena that betray an order. The universe has a structure that is intelligible. It has patterns that human reason perceives and understands. When we attribute causality to chance, we simply admit that we remain ignorant of the whole as was Bob of all the facts. Yet, Bob and Matt both acted as agents with will and ends, and they acted so in an orderly universe.
Coincidence, as a species of chance, is how we in our ignorance perceive simultaneous events when their relationship is not obvious. However, if the ideas interrelate as the eternal intelligible structure of reality, in the mind of God, then the manifestations of those ideas in time and place—in becoming—would expectably interrelate on the “horizontal” level, as well. Moreover, everything that happens in time has a causal relationship with everything else on the timeline; everything is part of that river. I suspect that pagan divinization and astrology originate in recognizing this aspect of the world. It is a metaphysically respectable point that has been besmirched by soothsayers’ capitalizing on ignorant man’s desires and fears.
A few months ago, Kristor posted a short essay on The Orthosphere about “Omniscience & Synchronicity” that is worth your time and reflection.
We just commemorated the ninety-fourth anniversary of the Great War’s end. I recommend that you read “The Gardener” by Kipling if you missed my mention of it over the summer. May the dead find peace, and may our civilization recover from the shock induced madness resulting from the last century’s wars.
For something else fitting for the time, you may wish to read Kristor’s “Phase Change” on the Orthosphere. Kristor’s argument reminds me of Kuhn’s paradigm shifts in the natural sciences.
Is it bad that I wish to live in interesting times? At least, such is preferable to bad times. Écrasez l’infâme is an attractive motto for the heretics of every age.
As a someone who generally lines up with Right-libertarianism but has sympathy with neocon and Straussian thought, I appreciate the point you are making. I’m also an atheist (though I was a Protestant years ago as you may remember). So I guess my problem is that I don’t see how nihilism dictates worship of the will. If everything is meaningless, so is my will (and consistent nihilists like Alex Rosenberg would argue that the will is an illusion to begin with). From a godless viewpoint parts of your reactionary philosophy could be defended.
But my real question for you is how do you truly avoid worshipping the will? You are exercising your will by writing about your philosophy—if enough people come to agree with you, and your ideal society came to be, it would be an act of human will. The restrictions on human will that you like would come into being through human will, would they not?
I do not deny the existence of the will or that it has a proper place in human life, though I admit that I do not understand the faculty. My friend Andrew argues that there was no fixed understanding of the will as a special faculty before Augustine. If you look at ancient psychology, the consensus seems to be that the soul is a composite of different forces. Consider the numerous images of the soul in the Platonic corpus or the rational, animal, and vegetative parts of the soul in Aristotle’s De Anima. There are distinctions between voluntary and involuntary actions in the context of ethical discussions, but the driving force in the soul behind a man’s voluntary actions appears simply to be the strongest part of his particular soul. The good man’s reason leads him; his inner man rules the lions and the beasts of his thumotic and appetitive drives. The virtuous man’s practical reason determines his course of action. Hence, the Socratic tradition and its descendants stress the importance of moral education and the habitual exercise of virtuous deeds in order to shape the soul so that the rational element grows strong in its command over the irrational elements.
With Augustine, however, we get a faculty that appears to be the desk on which the buck of volition stops. For the Hellenic tradition makes it difficult to see men as ultimately responsible for their actions. Virtue is largely the result of being well reared. Yet, we might wonder how we can justly blame a man for his own upbringing that corrupted him and set him on a wayward path. Political necessity requires judgment and punishment, but such penalties are more practical in character; they make no claims on the ultimate origin of good or bad behavior. By contrast, Augustine the Christian worries about the divine justice in the judgment and punishment of a higher court. Augustine’s attempts to address that problem set the stage for the Western debate on the will, from De libero arbitrio to his later anti-Pelagian writings, which inspired Calvin’s predestination doctrines a millennium afterward.
I have no settled opinion on the matter. Last year at this time, frequent View from the Right commentator Kristor and I had an exchange that resulted in several posts where I stated my perplexity and my commitments regarding the will, mainly in the context of the problem of evil. I find it difficult to understand anything undetermined. The world that we witness is one of intelligible causality, and it is bizarre to think of the will as free. Yet, we have the experience of a faculty that suggests uncaused action. It is therefore understandable that Descartes and other moderns find the imago dei in the will, which seems a fitting image for the uncaused cause. Perhaps, Kant’s distinction of the noumenal from the phenomenal realm offers the best way possible to approach the mystery of the will.
The point of my last post stands regardless of our precise understanding of the will—namely, that the reduction of reality to the will is the wicked seed from which modern madness has grown. I suggest that the previous philosophical tradition is the correct one, where volition, however we conceive of its exercise, occurs in a world that has meaning apart from the will . . . and where will finds its appropriate exercise in conformity to our knowledge of the good. I proposed that modern confusion resulted from a bad turn in late medieval theology. Nominalism—the rejection of formal reality beyond a tool of human thought—was championed by religious men who thought that essences restricted the dominion of God. Their concern has its roots in a prior theological mistake that separates God’s will from God’s knowledge. For only by introducing such divisions in God may one conclude that essences threaten divine omnipotence. Yet, it is perverse to separate God’s will from his knowledge and his goodness. Though we do not know God’s essence, the divisions in being and in the faculties of our soul that relate to being do not apply to God, where the transcendentals exist in a unity, or at least in a state that transcends our understanding of unity. For us, truth and goodness—being as known and being as desired—remain distinct. Moreover, our faculties that deal with truth and goodness—our intellect and our will (however it is understood)—are distinct from each other and from their objects. Our divisions do not apply to God. There is no divine will separate from divine knowledge or divine goodness or divine love or divine power. The cruder Mohammedans and Calvinists err when they consider essences or an eternal standard of goodness an impediment to God’s omnipotence. For they make God into a divided being like us rather than the source of all being.
Historically, this theological error corrupted natural and moral philosophy, as well. Reality was reduced to will. Nominalism ultimately undermines all knowledge save the brute, irreducibly felt presence of the self. A brilliant and decent man like Descartes may recover enough ground to reconstitute some edifice of knowledge after having wrecked our cognitive abilities to understand the world as intelligible, but the worms of this reductionism would not rest. Yet, the slide toward more reductionism was not justified. Take Hume, for instance, who by all accounts was an intelligent and observant fellow. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, the Scotsman fails to account for our knowledge of “mathematical facts,” and his nominalist epistemology cannot explain how our minds associate “similar” ideas without admitting the metaphysical system that he wishes to reject. Even with a sincere philosopher like Hume, obstacles and snags to his project are curiously overlooked and forgotten. Likewise, the long march of Western philosophy from the love of wisdom to the dejection of nihilism is accompanied by thousands of such moments wherein men of genius continue to build their castles upon clouds while ignoring foundational problems that just happened not to be their problems.
“All reality is simply the stage upon which the self wills to act.” “But, Herr Doktor, are you proposing solipsism?” “No, not at all, for you are another self” “But we share the same stage?” “Indeed!” “But how does your self recognize my self as distinct from your self and from the world that it evidently creates?” “It is in the nature of the self’s free positing of itself to recognize the free self positing of other selves.” “But if the self can detect independent selves and is aware of the nature of these selves, at least in this respect, why can’t we affirm that we might understand the nature of the world in which the selves meet? After all, the world is the context of the self, and a shared world between multiple selves seems more independent than a projection of the selves.” “Achtung! You risk caving to the transcendent temptation! Don’t you realize that we abandoned all that superstitious, unfounded medievalism centuries ago? After all, it’s 1804!”
Such is not really that much of an exaggeration. Instead of picking on German idealism, we could consider any modern philosophical current where its claims about the limitations of knowledge undermine its own philosophical endeavor. See “The Necessity of Knowledge” for a fuller treatment of this story. Ockham’s parsimony has resulted in systems so niggardly that they cannot afford the mental resources to see the world as it is or even as they dare argue it to be. They make lavish claims about the world like the prodigal son, but they have rejected traditional approaches to the world that affirm man’s ability to know and the world’s ability to be known just as that self exiled youth rejected the household and ways of his father. In this, they just do not notice their ideas’ inadequacy because their attention is turned to their pet questions. I suspect that my fellow Cincinnatian Thomas Kuhn described intellectual labors within world views correctly. Though his concern was natural philosophy rather than metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, I think that the same human tendency prevails in all disciplines. Men often see only what interests them; they ignore or disregard tangential matters that do not relate to their current obsession.
What has concerned Western man for centuries has been power. Interest in nature for reasons other than mastery has been a minority position for ages. Knowledge of formal causes would not help us build more effective rockets or washing machines. Such knowledge might even cause us great inconvenience; it is a costly enterprise to consider natural ends. Just dealing with Kantian liberals and their moral hangups with autonomous wills really takes its toll on the bottom line. Do we really want to open up Aristotle’s long buried box?
Nominalism thus prevails not due to its rational superiority but because it facilitates increasing human power and because nominalists have failed to ask fundamental philosophical questions for the past seven hundred years. Ask a materialist basic metaphysical questions about matter, about the structure of an atom, about the identity of atomic structures, and you will bore him, anger him, or convert him. With apologies to Cardinal Newman—to be deep in metaphysics is to cease to be a nominalist.
Our reduction of all reality to the will, which is the consequence of nominalistic reasoning whereby our knowledge of the world continually diminishes as we rob ourselves of the ability to look at the world with our full intellectual faculties, eventually leads to chaos. I hold that our political disorder has its origins in the misplaced supremacy of the will, which has resulted in an endless rebellion against authority of any kind, whether ancestral, natural, or divine. If there is no natural value—no true hierarchy of goods—then everything is arbitrary. Everything becomes a projection of the will, and authority becomes simply an opponent in the struggle of wills. Yet, for what do these wills struggle if nothing else can be known—if nothing else matters? It is an absurdity that leads men to misology and nihilism. As Tyler notes in his comment, true nihilism entails the rejection of the will itself, but that rejection can only be theoretical. If a man lives, he necessarily affirms his will’s existence (however the will is conceived) by undertaking any act. So, having rejected God and reason, modernity becomes the idolatry of the will, disconnected from other aspects of reality that impinge upon boundless freedom. We might call modernity’s intellectual destination “dishonest nihilism”—an inconsistent rejection of being.
Andrew suggests that modern thought consists chiefly of philosophers with daddy issues who assume that no one ever had insight until them—a sort of adolescent intellectualism that refuses to grow up. When such spiritual immaturity informs—or fails to inform—political life, we get modern politics, wherein the most rebellious of the rebels (and all modern men are rebels) rejoice in their Satanic rejection of good. Accordingly, Lawrence Auster of View from the Right often calls leftism the political expression of evil:
. . . because people become immoral and unworthy of love, people stop caring for each other. And since, as I’ve often said, leftism is the political expression of evil,—more particularly, since leftism is the political expression of the rebellion against God and goodness of which Jesus speaks—under leftism people become increasingly unlovable and turn coldly away from each other. The forces of cohesion that hold a society together, die.
What is leftism? The deliberate destruction of the forces of cohesion—namely, goodness and love—that hold human society together.
It is not by coincidence that the Anton LaVey and his band of liberals, hedonists, and Nietzscheans chose to honor evil when they founded the “Church of Satan” in the 1960’s—that decade of tacky rebellion. For Satan is the ultimate rebel. Two of their “Pentagonal Revisionism” objectives are:
4. Development and production of artificial human companions—The forbidden industry. An economic “godsend” which will allow everyone “power” over someone else. Polite, sophisticated, technologically feasible slavery. And the most profitable industry since T.V. and the computer.
5. The opportunity for anyone to live within a total environment of his or her choice, with mandatory adherence to the aesthetic and behavioral standards of same—Privately owned, operated and controlled environments as an alternative to homogenized and polyglot ones. The freedom to insularize oneself within a social milieu of personal well-being. An opportunity to feel, see, and hear that which is most aesthetically pleasing, without interference from those who would pollute or detract from that option.
Ours is an age of autonomy, of empowerment, of freedom, of choice! At least, the self proclaimed Satanists understand the true nature of modernity. It is an exultation of the will divorced from any other considerations; it is praise of Adam’s sin wherein he placed his ego above God in his ranking of goods. Of course, these latter day Satanists eschew the traditional understanding of the demonic, at least at first. They worship themselves, not the devil, but the turn from God and toward nothingness is the same. I think of Screwtape’s seventh letter to Wormwood:
MY DEAR WORMWOOD,
I wonder you should ask me whether it is essential to keep the patient in ignorance of your own existence. That question, at least for the present phase of the struggle, has been answered for us by the High Command. Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Of course this has not always been so. We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and sceptics. At least, not yet. I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalise and mythologise their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, belief in us, (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy. The “Life Force”, the worship of sex, and some aspects of Psychoanalysis, may here prove useful. If once we can produce our perfect work—the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls “Forces” while denying the existence of “spirits”—then the end of the war will be in sight. But in the meantime we must obey our orders. I do not think you will have much difficulty in keeping the patient in the dark. The fact that “devils” are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you.
Lewis well recognized that the forces of hell are cunning.
Tyler’s point about nihilism is a personally moving one for me. In my entry, “Criterial Argument for the Existence of God,” I copied an exchange wherein I admitted to having a “nihilistic temptation.” Since my first year in college, I have had a nagging suspicion that every absurd claim might be true, even though such fails the obvious retortion test and removes the possibility of further thought. Yet, it appears that our freedom for foolishness is so great that our minds are able to entertain, at least in a suggestive way, any ludicrous proposition. In response, Kristor notes:
As to the temptation of nihilism, I feel it, too. But is not this the same thing as to say simply that I feel temptation? Temptation to any sin, however trivial, is a temptation to some turn or other toward nothingness. Followed persistently, all sins lead ultimately to the outer darkness.
Nihilism offers no truth, of course. Yet, we are agents of truth. We are agents of action. We are. Nihilism is the purest Satanic stance, though it is a path that we cannot tread. We cannot live according to nothingness. We inevitably must affirm goods in order to live. Even the simple act of brushing one’s teeth or drinking a glass of water necessarily implies goods that we have claimed to exist. To be a human being is to act, and to act is to proclaim a moral dimension to the universe. Dionysius notes that even the demons, insofar as they exist, are good. Similarly, insofar as we remain men, we manifest the goodness of existence and, perhaps unwittingly and even, ironically, unwillingly, we thereby acknowledge the falsehood of nihilism in deed.
Update: Kristor adds the following comment on the original post:
The mere exercise of the will is not tantamount to the worship thereof, particularly when it is constrained by an intellectual knowledge of truth. By the same token, to say that the will ought to be subordinated to the intellect is not at all to denigrate the will, but only to coordinate it to its proper role in the economy of the person.
Rosenberg is quite right in saying that if there is no truth then the will is an illusion. If there is no truth, then “the will exists” is false. But then, so is “there is no truth.”
Auster frequently addresses the Darwinian question on his View from the Right, but a tangential post from a few days ago caught my eye. In it, the ever insightful commentator Kristor elaborates on the Bonaventuran distinction between apprehension and comprehension:
When we speak of knowing something, we may mean either that we apprehend, or that we comprehend. To apprehend is, literally, to “grasp at or toward.” To comprehend is to “grasp together.” Apprehension happens when we know of something, but do not understand it; we can touch it, but it escapes our grasp. Comprehension happens when we know of something and have some understanding of it; when we are able to wrap our minds around it.
So, then: we can apprehend that there is—that there must logically be—something outside our world, and greater, for only thus could there be a context, a way, a receptacle in which the world could come to be. We may come to understand certain things about that transcendent reality. But only a few things, and them but dimly. We cannot ever understand it in its fullness, or even come close. There is no way to grasp him, who has our whole world in his grasp.
The only sorts of things it is possible for us to comprehend are those that are lesser than we. These we may encompass. Part of the reason we have theories about the world is that the theories are small and intellectually manageable, as compared with the complex concrete realities to which they refer. The theories are smaller than we are. The realities to which they refer never, ever are.
To apprehend something without understanding it, is to be confronted with mystery. Sometimes we can dispel the mystery a bit by our own efforts. Our understanding may even be good enough to give us great power. But no matter how deeply we plumb a phenomenon, howsoever humble, we can never find its bottom. Take a pebble. What is it? What is its complete, exhaustive description? The answer cannot be completed, even in an infinite span of time. Nicholas Rescher points out that the number of true statements that can be made about anything is infinite; and Gödel proved that no self-consistent answer to any question can ever be completed. Thus the more one learns about something—about anything—the more one learns that there is more to learn about it. Think of something homely and familiar—say, knitting, or model railroading. One could never get to the bottom of them, never finish them, never express all their beauties. Every concrete actuality is infinitely deep.
And the reason this must be so is not far to seek; for every instance of definite being must necessarily arise in the context of, and as a derivate of, the limitless indefinite. Being as such is the necessary prerequisite and source of every particular being. Reality is infinitely deep, because its depths are in the fathomless abyss of God. So, a pebble is as rooted in God, and as full of his presence and expressive of his glory, as the highest seraph. One of the reasons scientists—even the atheists among them—do science is that, in delving into the depths of the real, they apprehend that glory, wonder and power at the root of all things. Depth calls to depth.
No matter what it grasps at, knowledge never suffices to its object. Only being suffices; for a being can suffice to itself, indeed must do so if it is actually to be. The only way to comprehend a thing fully, then, is to open oneself to it and make oneself a part of it, to partake in it. Comprehension is trans-rational, trans-cognitive. It happens when we allow ourselves to be comprehended by something larger than we are.
Such is worship. It is effected by sacrifice.
Curiously, as mystics all tell us, in the utter turn of the soul to God is delivered a full comprehension of all lesser things.
It seems to follow, then, that progress toward knowledge is an infinite activity wherein we come to know more and more what we apprehend. We never exhaustively comprehend eternal truths, but we conform our minds to being as we continue to understand it better. Only God comprehends completely.
I do not have anything to add about our favorite less than Christianized pagan feast that I did not already mention in “All Hallow’s Eve.” Enjoy your All Saints’, your All Souls’, and even your Samhain.
However, the shadowy character of the holiday reminds me of an image that came to me during a recent discussion about mathematics. Nominalism is so rampant in the spiritual air that we breathe that I frequently find myself arguing with folks who hold that men created mathematics—ex nihilo, I suppose. In my last quixotic attempt to open the eyes of the blind to realism, my interlocutor suggested that mathematical concepts were entirely conventional. If that were true, then we should be able to dispose of them and to create another system of mathematics from scratch. Yet, even when we tweak various axioms that underly a particular mathematical approach, as in non-Euclidean geometry, the fundamental logic of mathematical relations continues to operate. There is much controversy in the philosophy of mathematics regarding the relationship between mathematics and formal logic, and I do not understand the problem enough to have any conviction on the matter. Yet, I cannot see how we could maintain logic or an understanding of mathematical relations without the other. I do not know if one implies the other, but, intuitively, they seem to coexist, at least in our thought process. To say that mathematics is entirely conventional is to say that we can think independently of what we mean by mathematical relations, and I do not see how such is possible. It is like asking a computer to function without programming or like asking a painter to copy a visible setting in the absence of light. We cannot think beyond the confines of thought. Could we have thought without mathematical reasoning? I am not sure if the simplest act of recognizing identity involves a mathematical judgment, but I am not comfortable in maintaining that we could still keep reason without such a significant constituent of it. We may manipulate which principles we apply in a given situation or thought experiment, but we do so still knowing and thinking with the suppressed principles in mind. Can we do violence to νοῦς without losing our mind entirely?
One of the occasional, non-political features on Auster’s View from the Right is synchronicity, where Auster and his readers relate the quirky coincidences that befall us throughout our lives. A few weeks ago, Kristor commented on one of these posts, “Can’t get away from that synchronicity (or, God has a mischievous sense of humor),” and he was characteristically Kristoresque. In other words, he wrote something worth repeating:
No one should fret about the fact that material causation cannot explain much of what happens in our lives. In fact, it is a grotesque error to expect such a thing from material causation. After all, material causation cannot explain material causation. Indeed, there is no possible material cause of material causation. I can’t think of a more succinct way to express the Aristotelian argument for a First, and Unmoved, Mover (or, ipso facto, to indicate the epistemological limits on the domain of merely scientific inquiry).
If there is no utterly transcendent First Mover, then there is just no motion, at all—no change of any kind, nor any being. Likewise, if there be no utterly transcendent Order, then there is just no order at whatsoever. If on the other hand there is such a Mover, and such an Order, then nothing that happens—nothing whatsoever, no matter how trivial—can fail to be connected in every respect to that Mover, and thereby wholly ordered to that Order. Nor, being wholly ordered to the source of all Order, may anything that exists fail to be part of a comprehensive and coherent ordering toward all other things. As Whitehead said, “each atom is a system of all things.” Furthermore, those multifarious connections between things, being all orderly, must at least in principle all be intelligible to any rational observer. So that, in principle, investigating anything carefully enough may provide us an opportunity to discover everything that can be discovered. This is one of the reasons poetry is useful—poems help us attend to significations we usually neglect to notice. That’s how poetry can engender apprehensions of sublimity. And, love is like poetry. Love a thing or a person well enough and properly, and in the object of your charity you may discover all that there is to be known.
Thus synchronicity is pervasive in what exists—this is just another way of saying, “things happen together, and we live in a coherent world”—and Hannon is quite right that whether we notice it depends upon how well we are paying attention to the connections and mutual significations among the disparate elements of our experience, by which that coherence is obtained, in every moment, and from each moment to its successors.
Kristor’s offers a provocative insight about poetry. It is an old idea that the poet sees the divine in some way. Kristor suggests that the poet truly sees nature, though perhaps with a divine perspective.
I found a playful piece by Professor Henry Fitzgerald that was published in Analysis: “Nominalist things.” My favorite part:
It’s all right, children! One need have no quarrel with dragons, qua nominalist! The number two would be a far greater stain on the world’s ontological purity than a mere dragon!
With apologies to Sister Maria . . .
Last week, Kristor forwarded an entry from Ultimate Object: “Criterial Argument for the Existence of God.” It briefly explains that God is implied in all rational thought. I think that such an observation must be obvious to any thinker not infected with the delusion of nominalism. For a unified complex universe, one needs a principle capable of unifying that complexity without reducing everything in it. Rational, observant analysis of the world therefore inevitably leads one to monotheism, just as denials of monotheism ultimately lead fools to relativism, clever fools to solipsism, and intelligent men to nihilism.
In this short (and therefore dense, and somewhat challenging) entry, machinephilosophy sets forth his Criterial Argument for the Existence of God. The Argument explains why Darwinists and materialists can’t help using teleological language: teleology, final causation, the whole panoply of the eternal truths of math, logic, and metaphysics, and therefore implicitly God himself are necessarily presupposed by thought as such, and thus also by its expression in language (I would add that if they are presupposed by being anywhere, they are presupposed by being everywhere; that’s part of what we mean when we call them necessary truths). This is the basis for the Socratic doctrine of anamnesis, set forth in the Meno: that when we reason about first principles (in math, logic, or metaphysics) we are expressing truths we already implicitly embody, and presuppose, by and in everything we say or do; so that, if we just think carefully about what we do indeed think, any of us can in principle discover any of the eternal truths.
Key sentence: “I don’t wake up in the morning wondering whether reason is going to be functioning, like I might wonder about my computer.” In order to live, we have no alternative but to presuppose that existence is rational, somehow, through and through; and that it is therefore in principle wholly intelligible, through and through. If these two presuppositions are groundless, then it is impossible in fact (whatever we might think) to explain or understand anything whatsoever, even a little bit.
Thus, as I have pointed out numerous times, if the atheists are right about God, then everybody is wrong about everything, because it is in that case not possible to be truthful. But this would mean that the atheists too are wrong about everything; and this would in turn mean that they are wrong in thinking that God does not exist. So God exists.
I wrote to Kristor:
Didn’t Lewis have a line for the general argument that the linked blog entry presents . . . that he believes that God exists as he believes the sun exists, not because he sees it, but because he sees everything else due to it?
What troubles me is how common it is for people to be blind to what seems obvious to us. The preponderance of human error often makes me question myself. I just don’t want to believe that so many people could be so wrong—perhaps I am wrong and the nihilists are right. But then I sober and realize how contradictory their position is. I call this move the “nihilistic temptation”—no matter how ridiculous and foolish it is, it continually reasserts itself to me. It must be an intellectual sin. I also think of the monstrous moral lapses in the history of man (consider abortion in America today, for example), and I remember how difficult the truth must be for our race. I wonder if such blindness affects different civilizations to different degrees. Eleventh century Frenchmen surely saw God in all things more easily than their descendents a millennium later, right?
To which Kristor responded:
Lewis did indeed say something like that, I think.
In the blindness of atheists there is I think something willful. They don’t want God to exist. They don’t want this to be that sort of universe. If God existed, that would entail all sorts of uncomfortable things, like chastity, or perfect honesty. If God does not exist, then their petty sins may go by the wayside, and they can go about the business of life, interested only in maximizing their profit on the deal, however they construe that profit.
Not so for Christians, or Jews. Or Muslims, for that matter. All three are totalistic religions. But then, a religion that is not totalistic is not really a religion at all, but rather nothing more than a species of magic – a technique, and no more. This is I think why liberals so often accuse religions of being totalitarian. Liberals are afraid of religion, because true religion requires a repudiation of their worldly idols – and, so far as they can tell, of themselves.
As to the temptation of nihilism, I feel it, too. But is not this the same thing as to say simply that I feel temptation? Temptation to any sin, however trivial, is a temptation to some turn or other toward nothingness. Followed persistently, all sins lead ultimately to the outer darkness.
Nihilism is tempting because in eliminating all good it ipso facto eliminates all shame and guilt at our persistent failures to achieve the good. It gets us off the hook by insisting that there is no hook. So it is a fantastic relief.
It is the nihilists, I have long thought, who are most ripe for conversion. They have fully understood the existential stakes, and in their ignorance of the truth about the alternative – willful or not – they have consciously chosen death. Indeed, they have embraced death. So, naturally enough, they are in agony. This is why, in my apologetical responses to them, I generally take a moment to ask: given the fact that you believe nothing really matters, why are you so angry about theism?
Kristor’s comment about willful atheism recalls Maverick Philosopher’s post, “Nagel on Evolutionary Naturalism and the Fear of Religion.” I confess that I just cannot understand it, having been raised in a theistic home and community. My loss of faith was extremely painful and troubling to me, and my years of agnosticism regarding Christianity, ever somewhat lingering, have never been desired by any part of my soul. I cannot empathize with anyone who desires the illusion of nihilistic chaos. I suspect that such folks do not want nihilism in itself, thinking instead that the world of their satisfactions and pleasures is self evident and self grounded. Yet, these men are philosophers! It is their chief vocation to hunt down every assumption and underlying principle, to investigate the very nature that loves to hide. That such people would willfully accept facts without questioning their ground lowers them. Men like Quine and Searle cannot be dismissed as bovine; why, then, do they accept the shadows for the sun?
Update: Alan R. adds:
His position is basically what Reformed presuppositional apologists call the Transcendental Agrument for God: All thought requires as a presupposition a God who makes reality to obey laws of logic that we can know and use, therefore even if you argue against God, you presuppose Him and contradict your position.
I especially appreciate his line:
Therefore, there is some sense in which these ultimate decisive rules and ideals of thought actually communicate knowledge and even wisdom by merely thinking about them and their relationship to our belief systems and our world of objects.
In other words, comtemplating God and His Word makes one wise, especially wise unto salvation.
I occasionally read Dennis Mangan’s blog, which has a humorous subtitle—Adventures in Reaction. Like John Derbyshire, Steve Sailer, and other “human biodiversity” enthusiasts, Mangan offers many interesting ideas that are appropriately dismissive of the reigning idiotic idols of the tribe. However, like Derbyshire, Sailer, and friends, sometimes Mangan wanders into uncharted territory where his overconfidence in contemporary natural science leads him to say bizarre things. Last week, for instance, Mangan posted “The Biological Basis of Music,” which he ends thus:
Music has long been considered something of a conundrum in philosophy and psychology, but the main result of this and other studies seem obvious in retrospect. How could music not have a biological or evolutionary basis?
Schopenhauer, one of the best philosophical theorists on the arts, thought that music was the highest and greatest art, since it is “about” nothing, but at least in its higher forms is pure abstraction. However, he lived before the age of Mendel and Darwin, and though he anticipated some of their findings, for instance in assertions of the heritability of character and the clash of will in nature, all his theorizing was just that: theorizing. He had little science on which to base his ideas.
Much the same could be said about many other philosophers in the past, e.g. John Locke’s idea of the tabula rasa, which surely made a lot of sense at the time but which we know now to be completely wrong. Kant’s notions of what can be known a priori vs. a posteriori were likewise uninformed by biology.
Studies like this show that the revolution in our knowledge of the biological basis of human culture and psychology is only beginning.
Leaving aside the other comments, let us just consider “Kant’s notions of what can be known a priori vs. a posteriori were likewise uninformed by biology.” What can this mean? I am no Kantian, but it appears to me that Kant’s distinction between what can be known through examining the structure and nature of reason itself and what can be known from experience is an appropriate and fundamental distinction. Increased knowledge of human biology cannot add to or alter that distinction. As we come to understand human evolution and the development of our cognitive faculties better, we might be able to grasp why and how human beings came to be aware of such distinctions, as we might be able to learn why and how human beings became rational beings, but the distinction itself is not attributable to evolution or biology. The distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge is like the principles of mathematics. The relationships between numbers and geometric figures did not evolve. Our biological evolution did not produce them. Rather, we evolved to be able to know them. Our biology developed so that we became animals capable of mathematical reasoning. Reason itself cannot be reduced to biology; reason just is. I think that it is telling that Mangan did not write that Newton’s Principia Mathematica was uninformed by our superior biological knowledge after Darwin, Watson, and Crick. Why not?
I am a great admirer and supporter of natural philosophy, but natural philosophers—“scientists”—have appropriate objects for their work. When natural philosophers attempt to reduce larger spheres of knowledge such as underlying metaphysics or prior considerations of epistemology to the limits of their discipline, they speak folly. Husserl noted that modern intellectuals tend to reduce all other disciplines to their own. The enthusiasts of mechanistic science frequently err in this way. When postmodern literature professors reduce other disciplines to their “narrative speak,” it is idiotic but not that surprising. Consider the rigor and standards of their discipline, where truth itself has been rejected as a matter of principle. Yet, when rational natural philosophers make the same mistakes, I find it tragic. For these folks should know better.