Arimathea | Philosophy | Nominalism, Nihilism, and the Will | Comments
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Monday, February 13, A.D. 2012
Nominalism, Nihilism, and the Will

For today’s entry, I wish to respond to a comment submitted by Tyler, a reader, on last Friday’s post, “Abortion as a Sacrament”:

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:


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.”

Posted by Joseph on Monday, February 13, A.D. 2012
Philosophy | AnthropologyEpistemologyEthicsMetaphysicsPhysicsPoliticsPermalink

My computer is being weird today, so I’m not sure if my last comment got through. I made a wise remark about how the demerit system of the world has still not instilled in me the virtues of attention to detail or diligence—the first time I tried to post, I forgot to put in my email address and had to start over!

Thanks for answering my question. That was quite a tour-de-force of Western thought. I’m just wondering, if you find the time, could you answer this: what fundamentally convinces you of your worldview? I’ve read your criterial argument and have heard you argue that math proves there is a God. I’ve also read literally all of your posts on metaphysics, but if you could please dumb down your basic clue as to the fact that reality is as you believe it is I would much appreciate it.

Posted by Tyler on Tuesday, February 14, A.D. 2012

Actually, I just reread some of your pieces, and I think I understand your arguments. In reality I think we disagree because I instinctively find it hard to believe that our little planet matters in a ridiculously huge universe. God came to live on this of all planets? I know this is flawed reasoning—you could likewise argue that it seems too amazing that random chance and evolutionary processes alone led to life. Perhaps its just my philosophical ignorance, but it seems that the history of philosophy is people coming up with excuses to believe what they were predisposed to believe anyway. Your quote from Kuhn sums it up. Your Criterial Argument piece is right. I don’t want to believe in God. Part of me does—everlasting life seems better than death. But then again Penn Jillette asked Piers Morgan “are you afraid of 1892? No? Then why fear 2092?” Of course the last conscious second before death may be terrifying, but enjoying the here and now seems better than saying prayers and getting up early on Sundays.

Anyway… I’ve got to get back to my Finance homework (one of the most meaningless yet practical of all professions!). But I do appreciate your writing and just wanted to put aside any false perception that maybe I can be convinced. I’d like to think I could, but I doubt it.

Posted by Tyler on Tuesday, February 14, A.D. 2012

@ Tyler: You find it hard to believe that our planet matters. Yeah, me too. But it is important to remember that the reason we find it hard to believe that is that we are very small minds. God, on the other hand, has what you might call infinite computational capacity. To an omniscient mind with infinite computational resources, the life of even the smallest thing - a bird, an electron - would be of tremendous value. For, remember that for God, there would be no such need as we feel to decide between goods that we shall experience - that we shall buy with our next moments of life. God can experience all actual goods to their fullest extent. Nothing can cost him; for him, there are no trade-offs. So, because he need not choose between goods, God is able to value them all. The life of the sparrow is as important to him as the life of the Andromeda Galaxy. And, finally, the life of any creature, no matter how vast or glorious, is to God’s enjoyment of himself, as any creature’s vastness is to God’s immensity. Whether x is a sparrow or the Andromeda Galaxy, x/God = 1/infinity. I.e., infinitesimally small. So God’s appreciation of the Andromeda Galaxy is as difficult to understand, as his appreciation and love of poor Tyler doing his finance homework.

Many, many of the problems that non-believers run into when contemplating God are due to the fact that they are, naturally enough, and with good intentions, treating God as if he were something less than God.

Posted by Kristor on Tuesday, February 14, A.D. 2012

@ Joseph: You write:

“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.”

I sympathize. I don’t have any answers, but I do have a clue. It seems to me that the mystery of the freedom of the will is deeply linked to the mystery of the coming into being of novel entities. A being that is determined ex ante cannot be really said to come into being at the point when it attains actuality; for, really, it is not a separate entity at all, but rather a mere function of its factors, an *aspect* of its factors. It is not, apart from its factors; so, it is not. If we are to say then that we really do exist, it must be the case that we are undetermined ex ante, at least a little bit. And the “ex ante” refers to priority in the orders both of time and of logic. But this is to say that there is an element of our coming into being which is ultimately mysterious - which is, precisely, not intelligible.

NB that this doesn’t make the world fundamentally unintelligible. It just means that the world is intelligible, through and through, *but only ex post.* [This is tantamount to saying that creatures are contingent, for an entirely perfectly completely predictable event would be, not contingent, but necessary - the two notions, of contingent being and of not completely intelligible being, have their source in the same wellspring.] Looking back, we can see the reasons for things. Looking forward, from within the moment of creation, the springs of our being are hidden from us. Where did this moment I am now “in” come from? It came, ultimately, from nothing, so far as we can tell. The mystery at the seed of each moment of our own becoming may be “what it’s like to be created ex nihilo.” Nothingness *just is* unintelligibility, no? In a world governed by a rational omnipotent God, there could be no such thing as an unintelligible actuality. So, what is, is ipso facto intelligible, through and through, at least in principle. What is not, and what is not yet, are not intelligible; if they were, they would already be (they would be past); but this is just the same thing, is it not, as to say, “what is not, and what is not yet, simply do not exist.” 

If we do really exist, then, we were not completely determined ex ante. And this gap in intelligibility, this volume of as yet but partial existence, seems to be the playground of the will.

How fitting that Heisengberg should have discovered an irreducible uncertainty at the root of physics, that absolutely rules out prediction, even in principle. How fitting that the physicists who study consciousness generally locate human freedom in the ontological room opened up by that uncertainty.

Posted by Kristor on Tuesday, February 14, A.D. 2012

I now recall that in our discussion last year of the Falls both of Adam and Lucifer we both took note several times of the sheer unintelligibility of evil. I recall also that the zero both of goodness and rationality (& ipso facto of intelligibility) is the zero of being.

So the mysteries at the roots of freedom, of being, and of evil may be all impenetrable because we and our acts come ultimately from nothing.

Posted by Kristor on Tuesday, February 14, A.D. 2012


Have you read “Religion of Last Resort”? It was one of my first posts. The end may be interesting to you. It seems that we both considered Orthodoxy on our way out from Christendom. I returned eventually, but, then, I never wanted not to find God. I just had many difficulties on the search. I wish you the best on the journey.

Posted by Joseph from Arimathea on Friday, February 17, A.D. 2012

I remember that post! I just reread it again. I have also concluded that if Christianity is true, Orthodoxy is the correct branch, based on theology, philosophy, and the secular history of the Church. I love Plato’s Republic as well, and also find the parallels between Socrates and Jesus to be fascinating. One thing we can agree on is that the search for truth and living the best life is a journey worth embarking on, instead of just being sheep who follow whatever TV or even “public intellectuals,” the Sophists of our day want us to believe. Your blog is very much appreciated, and I thank you for your kind wishes and hope your journey continues to bear good fruit.

Posted by Tyler on Saturday, February 18, A.D. 2012

This is off topic, but I thought you might find this interesting. It’s in this weekend’s WSJ:

My personal thoughts are that the problems are right—you especially are at the liberty to observe them where you live and in your home city I’d imagine, but the solutions are silly and could be satirical. Religion works because of an us vs the world mentality—maybe it’s just the Strauss and Kristol in me, but community based on our common humanity is paradoxically impossible, at least as I see it. There can only be community in opposition to something else. I’d be curious about your thoughts.

Posted by Tyler on Sunday, February 19, A.D. 2012
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