Archive for the ‘Dialectical’ Category

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.

Ludwig Wittgenstein on logic and language

ludwig_wittgensteinLudwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) was an Austrian born British philosopher. Wittgenstein produced only one published book on philosophy (Tractatus Logico-Philosophus in 1921) while he was alive, but is nonetheless considered one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century. He was born into a wealthy family in Austria, but would later gave away his inheritance to his family, stating that philosophy was the only work that gave him satisfaction.

Wittgenstein was a student of Russell. Russell described him as “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.” I have written previously regarding Russell’s unique style of Platonism, which emphasised the importance of terms. Wittgenstein, inspired by both Russell and Frege, takes this one step further in contending that all major philosophical problems have their being in the misunderstanding of the logic of language.

At the heart of the Wittgensteinian philosophy is the saying/showing distinction. Wittgenstein contended that what can be shown cannot be said. But if all philosophy is bound by language, then there are simply things that cannot be known. In this sense Wittgenstein channels Kant, where the necessary apparatus for making sense of experience are things that themselves cannot be experienced and known. In this way Wittgenstein shows the Kantian limitation of Frege-Russell logic, like a paradox it may explain all things but remains itself unexplained.

Bertrand Russell: the move from idealism to realism

23351-004-4286d6b7Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) was a British philosopher most famous for his work the Principia Mathematica, which he completed with Alfred Whitehead. Continuing in the footsteps of those such as Frege, this work was an attempt to establish a logical basis for mathematics. He is considered one of the pioneers of the analytic school of philosphy.

In his youth, Russell was heavily influenced by his teachers, who favoured idealism. There was a preference for Hegel’s idealism, but Kantianism was also prevalent. However, Russell began to find problems with his idealistic thinking, stating that he began to see an undue psycologicism in his work.

Russell comes to this conclusion through his study of mathematics. While retaining Kant’s distinction between the a priori and the a posterioriRussell goes on the reject Kant’s idealistic contention that is the categories of the mind that determine what is a priori. Russell’s reason for this is that he believes that if human nature were to change, the a priori truths of mathematics would then also change, which he believed was absurd. Russell calls this “psychologism” because it is the Kantian tendency to confuse what is true with what one is psychologically conditioned to think is true.

But where does this rejection of idealism based on the reality of mathematical truths leave Russell? In my next post I will examine how Russell turned to a type of realism, specifically Platonic realism.

Freud, antitheism and the genetic fallacy

freud2When Freud’s writings touch upon the issue of religion and the divine, there lies a fascinating intersection of modern ideas. While Charles Darwin had provided the scientific theory of the mechanistic origin of man from simpler life, Freud’s great contribution to the Enlightenment secular edifice was to psychologise man’s religious activities.

If one wishes to form a true estimate of the full grandeur of religion, one must keep in mind what it undertakes to do for men. It gives them information about the source and origin of the universe, it assures them of protection and final happiness amid the changing vicissitudes of life, and it guides their thoughts and motions by means of precepts which are backed by the whole force of its authority.

– Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis

Per Freud religion exists in order to placate man’s need for wish fulfillment. Specifically, religion exists because of man’s fears regarding the indifference and power of the natural world and because of its sometimes usefulness in promoting social cohesion and order. Religion is for Freud the attempt of an infantile man to use illusion to create a better world. In Freud’s theory one also finds the progressive anthropology common in the writings of thinkers such as Rousseau and Comte, where it is postulated that the primitive ideas of religion will eventually be shed by a new type of scientific man.

But is what Freud has to offer a refutation of religious ideas or simply a type of historical classification? In this regard Freud seems to take a similar approach to Nietzsche.

Historical refutation as the definitive refutation. — In former times, one sought to prove that there is no God — today one indicates how the belief that there is a God could arise and how this belief acquired its weight and importance:  a counter-proof that there is no God thereby becomes superfluous. — When in former times one had refuted the ‘proofs of the existence of God’ put forward, there always remained the doubt whether better proofs might not be adduced than those just refuted:  in those days atheists did not know how to make a clean sweep.

-Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Daybreak:  Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, Book I, sec. 95

The genetic fallacy is a type of logical fallacy whereby a conclusion is proposed based upon some fact regarding the origins of something. It is a fallacy because the conclusion is unsupported by irrelevant facts regarding the subjects origin. Freud fails to take into account that the truth (or falsity) of his psychological theory regarding the origins of religion are consistent both with the existence and non-existence of the divine.

Darwin, mechanism and anthropology

indexCharles Darwin (1809 – 1882) was an English scientist best known for his particular theory of special evolution involving common descent and natural selection. Darwin initially found fame for his work in the field of geology and the popular journal of his voyage aboard the HMS Beagle. It was during this time that Darwin first became fascinated by the manner in which the diversification of species seemed to follow a geographical pattern. It was not until 1858 that Darwin published a joint paper outlining his evolutionary theory.

In a way, Darwin’s theorising is the perfect modern archetype. Platonic philosophies outright rejected change in the immutable world of the forms (which includes forms of the species), and for Aristotle whilst there was a gradation in the complexity of living things (inorganic < vegetable < animal < rational) the difference between these categories was clearly defined and not a matter of degree. The most important thing to note is that for Aristotle and Plato the information of matter to a various species takes part as a teleological process. For Plato it is the will of the demiurge and for Aristotle his Divine being of pure actuality.

There was nothing novel, or even modern, in Darwin’s rejection of teleology. After all, prior to Aristotle Leucippus the Atomist had asserted that “nothing in the body is made in order that we may use it. What happens to exist is the cause of its use”. Following the work of Newton and Descartes, mechanical explanations of natural phenomena had begun to displace classical and medieval dualistic views. However, while Newton and Descartes seemed to favour natural laws as manifestations of divine will, Darwin favoured Schopenhauer’s view that life is imbued with a will that manifests itself as a struggle to survive.

Darwin’s novel insight was not that one species was generated from another, but rather that the method for this generation was natural selection. In this way, Darwin provided a way to account for the diversity of species (and the origin of man himself) in a purely mechanistic manner. Darwin’s theory radicalised not only biology, but also anthropology – as before the Aristotelian hierarchy had rendered man wholly other to the animal kingdom. Now with Darwinian evolution, man was only different from animal and vegetable life by degree.

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: existentialism and value

2834017-ubermenschIn this previous post, I outlined Nietzsche’s epistemology of perspectivism. In summation, Nietzsche rejects an objective reality of the sort posited by rationalists such as Plato and Descartes, and contends that human knowledge cannot be independent of perspective.

Like most great thinkers, Nietzsche wrestled with the moral questions of how one should live one’s life. The context of Nietzsche’s writings is important: he was working at a time when the values of European Christianity were under intense scrutiny and the role of the Church in everyday life was being steadily dimished.

Thus Nietzsche presents his solution to the angst of a man living in a post-Christian nihilistic world: the ubermensch. Following from his rejection of objective truth, Nietzsche naturally sees the creation of a value as being more worthy than the value itself. An ubermensch is a type of superman that is aware of the absurdity of objective truth and understands that his most potent activity is the domination of the external world through the exertion of his will. Nietzsche calls his voluntaristic theory of human behavior the “will to power”.

Nietzsche shares existentialist similarities with Kierkegaard, who also thought truth was subjective and generated through relationship (though particularly with God contra Nietzsche).

The contrast with Plato is interesting. Plato was known for criticising artists that would represent the external world in differing perspectives. Plato considered this kind of knowledge a mere opinion (doxa) based upon a shadow that was cast by true reality, the Forms.