Archive for the ‘Consequences of ideas’ Category

Camus and the absurd

Albert-Camus-7Albert Camus (1913 – 1960) was a French-Algerian writer and Nobel Laureate. Camus began his career as a journalist and playwright in his native Algeria. He would go on to write several novels, plays and essays that would gain him international recognition – the most notable being The Stranger and The Myth of Sissyphus.

Camus was neither a philosopher by training or profession, yet his works are full of insight and are heavily influenced by the burgeoning Existentialist philosophy in Europe. Camus’ greatest philosophical contribution is his idea of the absurd.

In the work of Sartre, one finds the particular legacy of Phenomenology; that while human consciousness is intentional (“of something else”), the external world has no such teleology. It is this tension of meaningful man against an indifferent world that gives rise to Camus’ absurdity.

This tension is particularly evident in the final chapter of The Stranger, where Meursault (imprisoned for murder) laments being trapped in what he feels is an inadequate justice system. Meursault writes that “what interests me at this moment is to escape the mechanism.” He conjures the image of a guillotine, a machine of death that gives its victim no chance of survival, and compares it unfavorably to taking a drug that would kill 90 % of it’s victims (i.e. the chance of survival). After this flight of fancy, Meursault writes “But all things considered, nothing allowed this luxury, everything denied it to me, the mechanism took hold again.”

For Camus, affected by the Cartesian and Newtonian modern mechanistic view of the world, the absurd arises because man is a kind of Unmeant Meaner – desperately seeking order and significance that can never exist outside of his own mind.

Sartre’s unique anti-theist argument


Most anti-theist arguments take the form, in one way or another, of the problem of evil. The classic example is Epicurus’ trilemma.

Sartre however, formulates a fascinating and unique atheistic argument. I have written in the previous post regarding Sartre’s existential anthropology – in that a man’s existence precedes his essence and thus he is necessarily a subject, and necessarily free.

With that background, I will attempt to trace out Sartre’s argument syllogistically.

  1. If God exists as traditionally conceived, then essence will precede existence and man must be an artificial object of God.
  2. Man is not an artificial object.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

Sartre writes in his play No Exit in the voice of Garcin:

This bronze. Yes, now’s the moment; I’m looking at this thing on the mantelpiece and I understand that I am in hell. I tell you, everything’s been thought out beforehand. They knew I’d stand at the fireplace stroking this thing of bronze, with all those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more, many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all that we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the ‘burning marl.’ Old wives’ tales, there’s no need for the red hot pokers. Hell – is other people!

As Garcin is being scrutinised he feels like the bronze statue, an artifice. Sartre then moves from the gaze of men to the gaze of an omniscient God. As RC Sproul writes, Sartre sees God as a kind of “cosmic voyeur” that reduces all men to mere objects. After all, if other people are hell, how much worse is the company of God!

Of course, this argument is not without controversy. One may point out that man is natural rather than artificial due to his intrinsic teleology, even if essence precedes existence. Or one may simply concede that in fact man is a type of object.

Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis

MemoryLearningSigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) was a neurologist whose work in the field of psychology gave birth to the contemporary psychiatric apparatus of psychoanalysis. Freud initially worked as a medical doctor at the Vienna General Hospital, where he undertook research into conditions such as cerebral palsy. The publications of his research would later see him offered a position as a university lecturer specialising in neuropathology.

The intellectual climate in which Freud formulated his theories was shaped largely by the titanic influence of Darwin’s evolutionary theory of common descent and natural selection. Previously, under the Aristotelian and Platonic hierarchies, man was differentiated from animals by his possession of an immaterial intellect or soul i.e. man was a rational animal. One of the consequences of Darwin’s theory was that while man was indeed different from the animals this difference was only in complexity; quantitative rather than qualitative.

Freud was also largely influenced by the development of the physical theory of the conservation of energy. Brücke, a supervisor of Freud in his early career, published a work contending that all living organisms were also governed by the law of energy conservation. Freud’s novelty was to flesh out what Brücke’s theory meant for the human mind; that the human psyche is also a mechanistic system and its various outputs are governed by the laws of physics.

Thus arises psychoanalysis, where mental disorders are treated as physical problems and their symptoms are to be elucidated through an interrogation of the patient by a psychoanalyst. It was Freud’s revolutionary idea to apply the principles of modern science to the treatment of mental disorder, and his legacy looms large over our contemporary intellectual landscape.

Definitions of sex, naturalism and the marriage debate

The definition of sex is surprisingly hard to pin down. There are a few common tropes such as that which produces orgasm or that which is pleasurable. But neither of these will do because sex can be sans orgasm and pleasure can be induced in other ways. One may say it’s the insertion of a penis in certain orifices, but of course this won’t do either for obvious reasons. Consent is also insufficient.

The traditional western definition is the coming together of two distinct individual organisms as one organism for the production of a new life. However, this takes something like a Platonic or Aristotelian realism and a fundamentally teleological view of nature for granted.  This just begs the question: can a society that is essentially naturalistic (i.e. no forms and no teleology) produce a meaningful definition of sex?

The naturalist position is the reverse of the realist position. For the realist, the man as substance is both more real than and is the final cause of his various accidents (such as his appendix for example). This view can most simply be thought of as wholes causing parts. For the naturalist-cum-atomist, atoms are the substance and man is the accident – parts causing wholes. This is the problem of the one or the many. When the naturalist view is fleshed out, not only is the definition of sex problematic but also the principles by which distinct individuals (which are necessary for sexual intercourse) have their being.

Therein is one of the potential sources for confusion in the modern debate regarding sex and marriage. The cart has gone well and truly before the horse; the question of the morality of sex must be subsequent to inquiry into the nature of sex itself. We don’t know what to do with sex and by extension marriage, simply because as a society the west has no understanding of what these things are.

Nietzsche: the death of God and cultural criticism


God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

— Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125

“God is dead” – the oft quoted, but seeming as oft misunderstood, idea of Nietzsche. These words are often casually dropped in conversation, as if a soundbite, but rarely does the mournful gravity of Nietzsche’s contention break through.

The mourning comes from recognising the crisis that the death of God will bring upon the individual and  Europe as a whole, and whether Nietzsche meant death as literal or figurative doesn’t change this point. For Nietzsche, when one gives up the credulity of the existence of God, one also necessarily relinquishes one’s right to Christian morality. Furthermore, one is left with a universe absent of objective values and truth – a disorderly place that at first glace seems to evoke the only natural response of nihilism. Nietzsche’s solution to this nihilistic tendency was the ubermensch and his will to power.

Thus arises Nietzsche’s vehement criticism of “the herd”. Nietzsche saw the popular culture as embracing the false Christian morality in order to avoid the use of their own will. As Marx held that religion holds man back from the sanctity of his labour, so Nietzsche criticises the herd for holding back the rise of the ubermensch, culminating in their own damnation.

Kierkegaard: existentialism and meaning

sartre-quoteWhat I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.

– Soren Kierkegaard, Gilleleie (1 August 1835) Journals 1A

Two of the primary targets of Kierkegaard’s criticism were the Hegelian Idealists and the Danish Church. The thrust of Kierkegaard’s objection to the dogmas of these two groups was that they were teaching the objective certainty of moral and religious truths. Kierkegaard argued that these truths were based on a type of syllogistic logic that ultimately ended in unresolvable paradox and a dreadful sense of the meaninglessness of life.

Kierkegaard’s solution to this problem was to translocate truth from the object to the subject (see the quote above). Kierkegaard invented the concept of the “knight of faith” – a man who uses his own freedom to create himself through a leap of faith rather than attempt to find himself through a rational analysis of external objects. Kierkegaardian existentialism varies from nihilism in that meaning must be manufactured by the individual due to the epistemic limitations of human beings.

Kierkegaard is commonly called the father of modern existentialism; yet, if he is its father than Kant is certainly the grandparent. After all, it was Kant who changed the ethical landscape with his anthropology of autonomy and man as an end in himself.

Zombies and modernism

zombie-brainsThe zombie trope is ubiquitous in modern film and literature. The typical plot involves a form of chemical or virus that infects a human being and mysteriously removes their humanness while leaving them more or less physically intact. The zombie will engage in any means that will meet its physical needs, with no regard for morality and reasoning.

The zombie theme is an archetypal example of the influence of modern philosophy on modern art. The father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, theorised that animals were a type of zombie i.e. their behaviour could be thoroughly explicated through physical interactions. Descartes differentiated animals from humans by saying that a human being had an immaterial mind that interacted with their brain.

It is not difficult to see how the idea of the zombie arises. If what makes the man wholly man is a separate and distinct thinking substance, what would happen if this substance, or access to it, were lost? Per Descartes, man would be reduced to the state of an animal i.e. a zombie.

While a symbol of popular culture, the zombie is also an important metaphysical tool. Modern philosophers like Locke and Hume, who sought to explain conscious activity purely in physical terms, are faced with a “zombie problem”. Either mental facts such as secondary qualities and qualia can be explained wholly in physical terms, in which case a man is a zombie; or they cannot in which case the existence of zombies is not possible and the materialist account of mind faces a serious problem.