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Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 2, Chapter 4: “The Sources of Existentialism in the Western Tradition”)

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In the previous post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, I explored Part 1, Chapter 3: The Testimony of Modern Art, where Barrett illustrates how existentialist thought is best exemplified in modern art.  The feelings of alienation, discontent, and meaninglessness pervade a number of modern expressions, and so as is so often the case throughout history, we can use artistic expression as a window to peer inside our evolving psyche and witness the prevailing views of the world at any point in time.

In this post, I’m going to explore Part II, Chapter 4: The Sources of Existentialism in the Western Tradition.  This chapter has a lot of content and is quite dense, and so naturally this fact is reflected in the length of this post.

Part II: “The Sources of Existentialism in the Western Tradition”

Ch. 4 – Hebraism and Hellenism

Barrett begins this chapter by pointing out two forces governing the historical trajectory of Western civilization and Western thought: Hebraism and Hellenism.  He mentions an excerpt of Matthew Arnold’s, in his book Culture and Anarchy; a book that was concerned with the contemporary situation occurring in nineteenth-century England, where Arnold writes:

“We may regard this energy driving at practice, this paramount sense of the obligation of duty, self-control, and work, this earnestness in going manfully with the best light we have, as one force.  And we may regard the intelligence driving at those ideas which are, after all, the basis of right practice, the ardent sense for all the new and changing combinations of them which man’s development brings with it, the indomitable impulse to know and adjust them perfectly, as another force.  And these two forces we may regard as in some sense rivals–rivals not by the necessity of their own nature, but as exhibited in man and his history–and rivals dividing the empire of the world between them.  And to give these forces names from the two races of men who have supplied the most splendid manifestations of them, we may call them respectively the forces of Hebraism and Hellenism…and it ought to be, though it never is, evenly and happily balanced between them.”

And while we may have felt a stronger attraction to one force over the other at different points in our history, both forces have played an important role in how we’ve structured our individual lives and society at large.  What distinguishes these two forces ultimately comes down to the difference between doing and knowing; between the Hebrew’s concern for practice and right conduct, and the Greek’s concern for knowledge and right thinking.  I can’t help but notice this Hebraistic influence in one of the earliest expressions of existentialist thought when Soren Kierkegaard (in one of his earlier journals) had said: “What 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”.  Here we see that some set of moral virtues are what form the fundamental substance and meaning of life within Hebraism (and by extension, Kierkegaard’s philosophy), in contrast with the Hellenistic subordination of the moral virtues to those of the intellectual variety.

I for one am tempted to mention Aristotle here, since he was a Greek philosopher, yet one who formulated and extolled moral virtues, forming the foundation for most if not all modern systems of virtue ethics; despite all of his work on science, logic and epistemology.  And sure enough, Arnold does mention Aristotle briefly, but he says that for Aristotle the moral virtues are “but the porch and access to the intellectual (virtues), and with these last is blessedness.”  So it’s still fair to say that the intellectual virtues were given priority over the moral virtues within Greek thought, even if moral virtues were an important element, serving as a moral means to a combined moral-intellectual end.  We’re still left then with a distinction of what is prioritized or what the ultimate teleology is for Hebraism and Hellenism: moral man versus intellectual man.

One perception of Arnold’s that colors his overall thesis is a form of uneasiness that he sees as lurking within the Hebrew conception of man; an uneasiness stemming from a conception of man that has been infused with the idea of sin, which is simply not found in Greek philosophy.  Furthermore, this idea of sin that pervades the Hebraistic view of man is not limited to one’s moral or immoral actions; rather it penetrates into the core being of man.  As Barrett puts it:

“But the sinfulness that man experiences in the Bible…cannot be confined to a supposed compartment of the individual’s being that has to do with his moral acts.  This sinfulness pervades the whole being of man: it is indeed man’s being, insofar as in his feebleness and finiteness as a creature he stands naked in the presence of God.”

So we have a predominantly moral conception of man within Hebraism, but one that is amalgamated with an essential finitude, an acknowledgement of imperfection, and the expectation of our being morally flawed human beings.  Now when we compare this to the philosophers of Ancient Greece, who had a more idealistic conception of man, where humans were believed to have the capacity to access and understand the universe in its entirety, then we can see the groundwork that was laid for somewhat rivalrous but nevertheless important motivations and contributions to the cultural evolution of Western civilization: science and philosophy from the Greeks, and a conception of “the Law” entrenched in religion and religious practice from the Hebrews.

1. The Hebraic Man of Faith

Barrett begins here by explaining how the Law, though important for its effects on having bound the Jewish community together for centuries despite their many tribulations as a people, the Law is not central to Hebraism but rather the basis of the Law is what lies at its center.  To see what this basis is, we are directed to reread the Book of Job in the Hebrew Bible:

“…reread it in a way that takes us beyond Arnold and into our own time, reread it with an historical sense of the primitive or primary mode of existence of the people who gave expression to this work.  For earlier man, the outcome of the Book of Job was not such a foregone conclusion as it is for us later readers, for whom centuries of familiarity and forgetfulness have dulled the violence of the confrontation between man and God that is central to the narrative.”

Rather than simply taking the commandments of one’s religion for granted and following them without pause, Job’s face-to-face confrontation with his Creator and his demand for justification was in some sense the first time the door had been opened to theological critique and reflection.  The Greeks did something similar where eventually they began to apply reason and rationality to examine religion, stepping outside the confines of simply blindly following religious traditions and rituals.  But unlike the Greek, the Hebrew does not proceed with this demand of justification through the use of reason but rather by a direct encounter of the person as a whole (Job, and his violence, passion, and all the rest) with an unknowable and awe-inspiring God.  Job doesn’t solve his problem with any rational resolution, but rather by changing his entire character.  His relation to God involves a mutual confrontation of two beings in their entirety; not just a rational facet of each being looking for a reasonable explanation from one another, but each complete being facing one another, prepared to defend their entire character and identity.

Barrett mentions the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber here to help clarify things a little, by noting that this relation between Job and God is a relation between an I and a Thou (or a You).  Since Barrett doesn’t explain Buber’s work in much detail, I’ll briefly digress here to explain a few key points.  For those unfamiliar with Buber’s work, the I-Thou relation is a mode of living that is contrasted with another mode centered on the connection between an I and an It.  Both modes of living, the I-Thou and the I-It, are, according to Buber, the two ways that human beings can address existence; the two modes of living required for a complete and fulfilled human being.  The I-It mode encompasses the world of experience and sensation; treating entities as discrete objects to know about or to serve some use.  The I-Thou mode on the other hand encompasses the world of relations itself, where the entities involved are not separated by some discrete boundary, and where a living relationship is acknowledged to exist between the two; this mode of existence requires one to be an active participant rather than merely an objective observer.

It is Buber’s contention that modern life has entirely ignored the I-Thou relation, which has led to a feeling of unfulfillment and alienation from the world around us.   The first mode of existence, that of the I-It, involves our acquiring data from the world, analyzing and categorizing it, and then theorizing about it; and this leads to a subject-object separation, or an objectification of what is being experienced.  According to Buber, modern society almost exclusively uses this mode to engage with the world.  In contrast, with the I-Thou relation the I encounters the object or entity such that both are transformed by the relation; and there is a type of holism at play here where the You or Thou is not simply encountered as a sum of its parts but in its entirety.  To put it another way, it’s as if the You encountered were the entire universe, or that somehow the universe existed through this You.

Since this concept is a little nebulous, I think the best way to summarize Buber’s main philosophical point here is to say that we human beings find meaning in our lives through our relationships, and so we need to find ways of engaging the world such as to maximize our relationships with it; and this is not limited to forming relationships with fellow human beings, but with other animals, inanimate objects, etc., even if these relationships differ from one another in any number of ways.

I actually find some relevance between Buber’s “I and Thou” conception and Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence: the idea that given an infinite amount of time and a finite number of ways that matter and energy can be arranged, anything that has ever happened or that ever will happen, will recur an infinite number of times.  In Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, he mentions how the concept of eternal recurrence was, to him, horrifying and paralyzing.  But, he also concluded that the desire for an eternal return or recurrence would show the ultimate affirmation of one’s life:

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?  Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.

The reason I find this relevant to Buber’s conception is two-fold: first of all, the fact that the universe is causally connected makes the universe inseparable to some degree, where each object or entity could be seen to, in some sense, represent the rest of the whole; and secondly, if one is to wish for the eternal recurrence, then they have an attitude toward the world that is non-resistant, and that can learn to accept the things that are out of one’s control.  The universe effectively takes on the character of fate itself, and offers an opportunity to a being such as ourselves, to have a kind of “faith in fate”; to have a relation of trust with the universe as it is, as it once was, and as it will be in the future.

Now the kind of faith I’m speaking of here isn’t a brand that contradicts reason or evidence, but rather is simply a form of optimism and acceptance that colors one’s expectations and overall experience.  And since we are a part of this universe too, our attitude towards it should in many ways reflect our overall relation to it; which brings us back to Buber, where any encounter I might have with the universe (or any “part” of it) is an encounter with a You, that is to say, it is an I-Thou relation.

This “faith in fate” concept I just alluded to is a good segue to return back to the relation between Job and his God within Hebraism, as it was a relation of never-ending faith.  But importantly, as Barrett points out, this faith of Job’s takes on many shapes including that of anger, dismay, revolt, and confusion.  For Job says, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him…but I will maintain my own ways before him.”  So Job’s faith is his maintaining a form of trust in his Creator, even though he says that he will also retain his own identity, his dispositions, and his entire being while doing so.  And this trust ultimately forms the relation between the two.  Barrett describes the kind of faith at play here as more fundamental and primary than that which many modern-day religious proponents would lay claim to.

“Faith is trust before it is belief-belief in the articles, creeds, and tenets of a Church with which later religious history obscures this primary meaning of the word.  As trust, in the sense of the opening up of one being toward another, faith does not involve any philosophical problem about its position relative to faith and reason.  That problem comes up only later when faith has become, so to speak, propositional, when it has expressed itself in statements, creeds, systems.  Faith as a concrete mode of being of the human person precedes faith as the intellectual assent to a proposition, just as truth as a concrete mode of human being precedes the truth of any proposition.”

Although I see faith as belief as fundamentally flawed and dangerous, I can certainly respect the idea of faith as trust, and consequently I can respect the idea of faith as a concrete mode of being; where this mode of being is effectively an attitude of openness taken towards another.  But, whereas I agree with Barrett’s claim that truth as a concrete mode of human being precedes the truth of any proposition, in the sense that a basis and desire for truth are needed prior to evaluating the truth value of any proposition, I don’t believe one can ever justifiably make the succession from faith as trust to faith as belief for the simple reason that if one has good reason to trust another, then they don’t need faith to mediate any beliefs stemming from that trust.  And of course, what matters most here is describing and evaluating what the “Hebrew man of faith” consists of, rather than criticizing the concept of faith itself.

Another interesting historical development stemming from Hebraism pertains to the concept of faith as it evolved within Protestantism.  As Barrett tells us:

“Protestantism later sought to revive this face-to-face confrontation of man with his God, but could produce only a pallid replica of the simplicity, vigor, and wholeness of this original Biblical faith…Protestant man would never have dared confront God and demand an accounting of His ways.  That era in history had long since passed by the time we come to the Reformation.”

As an aside, it’s worth mentioning here that Christianity actually developed as a syncretism between Hebraism and Hellenism; the two very cultures under analysis in this chapter.  By combining Jewish elements (e.g. monotheism, the substitutionary atonement of sins through blood-magic, apocalyptic-messianic resurrection, interpretation of Jewish scriptures, etc.) with Hellenistic religious elements (e.g. dying-and-rising savior gods, virgin birth of a deity, fictive kinship, etc.), the cultural diffusion that occurred resulted in a religion that was basically a cosmopolitan personal salvation cult.

But eventually Christianity became a state religion (after the age of Constantine), resulting in a theocracy that heavily enforced a particular conception of God onto the people.  Once this occurred, the religion was now fully contained within a culture that made it very difficult to question or confront anyone about these conceptions, in order to seek justification for them.  And it may be that the intimidation propagated by the prevailing religious authorities became conflated with an attribute of God; where a fear of questioning any conception of God became integrated in a theological belief about God.

Perhaps it was because the primary conceptions of God, once Christianity entered the Medieval Period, were more externally imposed on everybody rather than discovered in a more personal and introspective way (even if unavoidably initiated and reinforced by the external culture), thus externalizing the attributes of God such that they became more heavily influenced by the perceptibly unquestionable claims of those in power.  Either way, the historical contingencies surrounding the advent of Christianity involved sectarian battles with the winning sect using their dogmatic authority to suppress the views (and the Christian Gospels/scriptures) of the other sects.  And this may have inhibited people from ever questioning their God or demanding justification for what they interpreted to be God’s actions.

One final point in this section that I’d like to highlight is in regard to the concept of knowledge as it relates to Hebraism.  Barrett distinguishes this knowledge from that of the Greeks:

“We have to insist on a noetic content in Hebraism: Biblical man too had his knowledge, though it is not the intellectual knowledge of the Greek.  It is not the kind of knowledge that man can have through reason alone, or perhaps not through reason at all; he has it rather through body and blood, bones and bowels, through trust and anger and confusion and love and fear; through his passionate adhesion in faith to the Being whom he can never intellectually know.  This kind of knowledge a man has only through living, not reasoning, and perhaps in the end he cannot even say what it is he knows; yet it is knowledge all the same, and Hebraism at its source had this knowledge.”

I may not entirely agree with Barrett here, but any disagreement is only likely to be a quibble over semantics, relating to how he and I define noetic and how we each define knowledge.  The word noetic actually derives from the Greek adjective noētikos which means “intellectual”, and thus we are presumably considering the intellectual knowledge found in Hebraism.  Though this knowledge may not be derived from reason alone, I don’t think (as Barrett implies above) that it’s even possible to have any noetic content without at least some minimal use of reason.  It may be that the kind of intellectual content he’s alluding to is that which results from a kind of synthesis between reason and emotion or intuition, but it would seem that reason would still have to be involved, even if it isn’t as primary or dominant as in the intellectual knowledge of the Greek.

With regard to how Barrett and I are each defining knowledge, I must say that just as most other philosophers have done, including those going all the way back to Plato, one must distinguish between knowledge and all other beliefs because knowledge is merely a subset of all of one’s beliefs (otherwise one would be saying that any belief whatsoever is considered knowledge).  To distinguish knowledge as a subset of one’s beliefs, my definition of knowledge can be roughly defined as:

“Recognized patterns of causality that are stored into memory for later recall and use, that positively and consistently correlate with reality, and for which that correlation has been validated by having made successful predictions and/or successfully accomplishing goals through the use of said recalled patterns.”

My conception of knowledge also takes what one might call unconscious knowledge into account (which may operate more automatically and less explicitly than conscious knowledge); as long as it is acquired information that allows you to accomplish goals and make successful predictions about the causal structure of your experience (whether internal feelings or other mental states, or perceptions of the external world), it counts as knowledge nevertheless.  Now there may be different degrees of reliability and usefulness of different kinds of knowledge (such as intuitive knowledge versus rational or scientific knowledge), but those distinctions don’t need to be parsed out here.

What Barrett seems to be describing here as a Hebraistic form of knowledge is something that is deeply embodied in the human being; in the ways that one lives their life that don’t involve, or aren’t dominated by, reason or conscious abstractions.  Instead, there seems to be a more organic process involved of viewing the world and interacting with it in a manner relying more heavily on intuition and emotionally-driven forms of expression.  But, in order to give rise to beliefs that cohere with one another to some degree, to form some kind of overarching narrative, reason (I would argue) is still employed.  There’s still some logical structure to the web of beliefs found therein, even if reason and logic could be used more rigorously and explicitly to turn many of those beliefs on their head.

And when it comes to the Hebraistic conception of God, including the passionate adhesion in faith to a Being whom one can never intellectually know (as Barrett puts it), I think this can be better explained by the fact that we do have reason and rationality, unlike most other animals, as well as cognitive biases such as hyperactive agency detection.  It seems to me that the Hebraistic God concept is more or less derived from an agglomeration of the unknown sources of one’s emotional experiences (especially those involving an experience of the transcendent) and the unpredictable attributes of life itself, then ascribing agency to that ensemble of properties, and (to use Buber’s terms) establishing a relationship with that perceived agency; and in this case, the agent is simply referred to as God (Yahweh).

But in order to infer the existence of such an ensemble, it would seem to require a process of abstracting from particular emotional and unpredictable elements and instances of one’s experience to conclude some universal source for all of them.  Perhaps if this process is entirely unconscious we can say that reason wasn’t at all involved in it, but I suspect that the ascription of agency to something that is on par with the universe itself and its large conjunction of properties which vary over space and time, including its unknowable character, is more likely mediated by a combination of cognitive biases, intuition, emotion, and some degree of rational conscious inference.  But Barrett’s point still stands that the noetic content in Hebraism isn’t dominated by reason as in the case of the Greeks.

2. Greek Reason

Even though existential philosophy is largely a rebellion against the Platonic ideas that have permeated Western thought, Barrett reminds us that there is still some existential aspect to Plato’s works.  Perhaps this isn’t surprising once one realizes that he actually began his adult life aspiring to be a dramatic poet.  Eventually he abandoned this dream undergoing a sort of conversion and decided to dedicate the rest of his life toward a search for wisdom as per the inspiration of Socrates.  Even though he engaged in a life long war against the poets, he still maintained a piece of his poetic character in his writings, including up to the end when he wrote about the great creation myth, Timaeus.

By far, Plato’s biggest contribution to Western thought was his differentiating rational consciousness from the rest of our human psyche.  Prior to this move, rationality was in some sense subsumed under the same umbrella as emotion and intuition.  And this may be one of the biggest changes to how we think, and one that is so often taken for granted.  Barrett describes the position we’re in quite well:

“We are so used today to taking our rational consciousness for granted, in the ways of our daily life we are so immersed in its operations, this it is hard at first for us to imagine how momentous was this historical happening among the Greeks.  Steeped as our age is in the ideas of evolution, we have not yet become accustomed to the idea that consciousness itself is something that has evolved through long centuries and that even today, with us, is still evolving.  Only in this century, through modern psychology, have we learned how precarious a hold consciousness may exert upon life, and we are more acutely aware therefore what a precious deal of history, and of effort, was required for its elaboration, and what creative leaps were necessary at certain times to extend it beyond its habitual territory.”

Barrett’s mention of evolution is important here, because I think we ought to distinguish between the two forms of evolution that have affected how we think and experience the world.  On the one hand, we have our biological evolution to consider, where our brains have undergone dramatic changes in terms of the level of consciousness we actually experience and the degree of causal complexity that the brain can model; and on the other hand, we have our cultural evolution to consider, where our brains have undergone a number of changes in terms of the kinds of “programs” we run on it, how those programs are run and prioritized, and how we process and store information in various forms of external hardware.

In regard to biological evolution, long before our ancestors evolved into humans, the brain had nothing more than a protoself representation of our body and self (to use the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s terminology); it had nothing more than an unconscious state that served as a sort of basic map in the brain tracking the overall state of the body as a single entity in order to accomplish homeostasis.  Then, beyond this protoself there evolved a more sophisticated level of core consciousness where the organism became conscious of the feelings and emotions associated with the body’s internal states, and also became conscious that her feelings and thoughts were her own, further enhancing the sense of self, although still limited to the here-and-now or the present moment.  Finally, beyond this layer of self there evolved an extended consciousness: a form of consciousness that required far more memory, but which brought the organism into an awareness of the past and future, forming an autobiographical self with a perceptual simulator (imagination) that transcended space and time in some sense.

Once humans developed language, then we began to undergo our second form of evolution, namely culture.  After cultural evolution took off, human civilization led to a plethora of new words, concepts, skills, interests, and ways of looking at and structuring the world.  And this evolutionary step was vastly accelerated by written language, the scientific method, and eventually the invention of computers.  But in the time leading up to the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, and finally the advent of computers and the information age, it was arguably Plato’s conceptualization of rational consciousness that paved the way forward to eventually reach those technological and epistemological feats.

It was Plato’s analysis of the human psyche and his effectively distilling the process of reason and rationality from the rest of our thought processes that allowed us to manipulate it, to enhance it, and to explore the true possibilities of this markedly human cognitive capacity.  Aristotle and many others since have merely built upon Plato’s monumental work, developing formal logic, computation, and other means of abstract analysis and information processing.  With the explicit use of reason, we’ve been able to overcome many of our cognitive biases (serving as a kind of “software patch” to our cognitive bugs) in order to discover many true facts about the world, allowing us to unlock a wealth of knowledge that had previously been inaccessible to us.  And it’s important to recognize that Plato’s impact on the history of philosophy has highlighted, more than anything else, our overall psychic evolution as a species.

Despite all the benefits that culture has brought us, there has been one inherent problem with the cultural evolution we’ve undergone: a large desynchronization between our cultural and biological evolution.  That is to say, our culture has evolved far, far faster than our biology ever could, and thus our biology hasn’t kept up with, or adapted us to, the cultural environment we’ve been creating.  And I believe this is a large source of our existential woes; for we have become a “fish out of water” (so to speak) where modern civilization and the way we’ve structured our day-to-day lives is incredibly artificial, filled with a plethora of supernormal stimuli and other factors that aren’t as compatible with our natural psychology.  It makes perfect sense then that many people living in the modern world have had feelings of alienation, loneliness, meaninglessness, anxiety, and disorientation.  And in my opinion, there’s no good or pragmatic way to fix this aside from engineering our genes such that our biology is able to catch up to our ever-changing cultural environment.

It’s also important to recognize that Plato’s idea of the universal, explicated in his theory of Forms, was one of the main impetuses for contemporary existential philosophy; not for its endorsement but rather because the idea that a universal such as “humanity” was somehow more real than any actual individual person fueled a revolt against such notions.  And it wasn’t until Kierkegaard and Nietzsche appeared on the scene in the nineteenth century where we saw an explicit attempt to reverse this Platonic idea; where the individual was finally given precedence and priority over the universal, and where a philosophy of existence was given priority over one of essence.  But one thing the existentialists maintained, as derived from Plato, was his conception that philosophizing was a personal means of salvation, transformation, and a concrete way of living (though this was, according to Plato, best exemplified by his teacher Socrates).

As for the modern existentialists, it was Kierkegaard who eventually brought the figure of Socrates back to life, long after Plato’s later portrayal of Socrates, which had effectively dehumanized him:

“The figure of Socrates as a living human presence dominates all the earlier dialogues because, for the young Plato, Socrates the man was the very incarnation of philosophy as a concrete way of life, a personal calling and search.  It is in this sense too that Kierkegaard, more than two thousand years later, was to revive the figure of Socrates-the thinker who lived his thought and was not merely a professor in an academy-as his precursor in existential thinking…In the earlier, so-called “Socratic”, dialogues the personality of Socrates is rendered in vivid and dramatic strokes; gradually, however, he becomes merely a name, a mouthpiece for Plato’s increasingly systematic views…”

By the time we get to Plato’s student, Aristotle, philosophy had become a purely theoretical undertaking, effectively replacing the subjective qualities of a self-examined life with a far less visceral objective analysis.  Indeed, by this point in time, as Barrett puts it: “…the ghost of the existential Socrates had at last been put to rest.”

As in all cases throughout history, we must take the good with the bad.  And we very likely wouldn’t have the sciences today had it not been for Plato detaching reason from the poetic, religious, and mythological elements of culture and thought, thus giving reason its own identity for the first time in history.  Whatever may have happened, we need to try and understand Greek rationalism as best we can such that we can understand the motivations of those that later objected to it, especially within modern existentialism.

When we look back to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, for example, we find a fairly balanced perspective of human nature and the many motivations that drive our behavior.  But, in evaluating all the possible goods that humans can aim for, in order to derive an answer to the ethical question of what one ought to do above all else, Aristotle claimed that the highest life one could attain was the life of pure reason, the life of the philosopher and the theoretical scientist.  Aristotle thought that reason was the highest part of our personality, where one’s capacity for reason was treated as the center of one’s real self and the core of their identity.  It is this stark description of rationalism that diffused through Western philosophy until bumping heads with modern existentialist thought.

Aristotle’s rationalism even permeated the Christianity of the Medieval period, where it maintained an albeit uneasy relationship between faith and reason as the center of the human personality.  And the quest for a complete view of the cosmos further propagated a valuing of reason as the highest human function.  The inherent problems with this view simply didn’t surface until some later thinkers began to see human existence and the potential of our reason as having a finite character with limitations.  Only then was the grandiose dream of having a complete knowledge of the universe and of our existence finally shattered.  Once this goal was seen as unattainable, we were left alone on an endless road of knowledge with no prospects for any kind of satisfying conclusion.

We can certainly appreciate the value of theoretical knowledge, and even develop a passion for discovering it, but we mustn’t lose sight of the embodied, subjective qualities of our human nature; nor can we successfully argue any longer that the latter can be dismissed due to a goal of reaching some absolute state of knowledge or being.  That goal is not within our reach, and so trying to make arguments that rely on its possibility is nothing more than an exercise of futility.

So now we must ask ourselves a very important question:

“If man can no longer hold before his mind’s eye the prospect of the Great Chain of Being, a cosmos rationally ordered and accessible from top to bottom to reason, what goal can philosophers set themselves that can measure up to the greatness of that old Greek ideal of the bios theoretikos, the theoretical life, which has fashioned the destiny of Western man for millennia?”

I would argue that the most important goal for philosophy has been and always will be the quest for discovering as many moral facts as possible, such that we can attain eudaimonia as Aristotle advocated for.  But rather than holding a life of reason as the greatest good to aim for, we should simply aim for maximal life fulfillment and overall satisfaction with one’s life, and not presuppose what will accomplish that.  We need to use science and subjective experience to inform us of what makes us happiest and the most fulfilled (taking advantage of the psychological sciences), rather than making assumptions about what does this best and simply arguing from the armchair.

And because our happiness and life fulfillment are necessarily evaluated through subjectivity, we mustn’t make the same mistakes of positivism and simply discard our subjective experience.  Rather we should approach morality with the recognition that we are each an embodied subject with emotions, intuitions, and feelings that motivate our desires and our behavior.  But we should also ensure that we employ reason and rationality in our moral analysis, so that our irrational predispositions don’t lead us farther away from any objective moral truths waiting to be discovered.  I’m sympathetic to a quote of Kierkegaard’s that I mentioned at the beginning of this post:

“What 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.”

I agree with Kierkegaard here, in that moral imperatives are the most important topic in philosophy, and should be the most important driving force in one’s life, rather than simply a drive for knowledge for it’s own sake.  But of course, in order to get clear about what one must do, one first has to know a number of facts pertaining to how any moral imperatives are best accomplished, and what those moral imperatives ought to be (as well as which are most fundamental and basic).  I think the most basic axiomatic moral imperative within any moral system that is sufficiently motivating to follow is going to be that which maximizes one’s life fulfillment; that which maximizes one’s chance of achieving eudaimonia.  I can’t imagine any greater goal for humanity than that.

Here is the link for part 5 of this post series.

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Looking Beyond Good & Evil

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Nietzche’s Beyond Good and Evil serves as a thorough overview of his philosophy and is definitely one of his better works (although I think Thus Spoke Zarathustra is much more fun to read).  It’s definitely worth reading (if you haven’t already) to put a fresh perspective on many widely held philosophical assumptions that are often taken for granted.  While I’m not interested in all of the claims he makes (and he makes many, in nearly 300 aphorisms spread over nine chapters), there are at least several ideas that I think are worth analyzing.

One theme presented throughout the book is Nietzsche’s disdain for classical conceptions of truth and any form of absolutism or dogmatism.  With regard to truth or his study on the nature of truth (what we could call his alethiology), he subscribes to a view that he coined as perspectivism.  For Nietzsche, there are no such things as absolute truths but rather there are only different perspectives about reality and our understanding of it.  So he insists that we shouldn’t get stuck in the mud of dogmatism, and should instead try to view what is or isn’t true with an open mind and from as many points of view as possible.

Nietzsche’s view here is in part fueled by his belief that the universe is in a state of constant change, as well as his belief in the fixity of language.  Since the universe is in a state of constant change, language generally fails to capture this dynamic essence.  And since philosophy is inherently connected to the use of language, false inferences and dogmatic conclusions will often manifest from it.  Wittgenstein belonged to a similar school of thought (likely building off of Nietzsche’s contributions) where he claimed that most of the problems in philosophy had to do with the limitations of language, and therefore, that those philosophical problems could only be solved (if at all) through an in-depth evaluation of the properties of language and how they relate to its use.

This school of thought certainly has merit given the facts of language having more of a fixed syntactic structure yet also having a dynamic or probabilistic semantic structure.  We need language to communicate our thoughts to one another, and so this requires some kind of consistency or stability in its syntactic structure.  But the meaning behind the words we use is something that is established through use, through context, and ultimately through associations between probabilistic conceptual structures and relatively stable or fixed visual and audible symbols (written or spoken words).  Since the semantic structure of language has fuzzy boundaries, and yet is attached to relatively fixed words and grammar, it produces the illusion of a reality that is essentially unchanging.  And this results in the kinds of philosophical problems and dogmatic thinking that Nietzsche warns us of.

It’s hard to disagree with Nietzsche’s view that dogmatism is to be avoided at all costs, and that absolute truths are generally specious at best (let alone dangerous), and philosophy owes a lot to Nietzsche for pointing out the need to reject this kind of thinking.  Nietzsche’s rejection of absolutism and dogmatism is made especially clear in his views on the common conceptions of God and morality.  He points out how these concepts have changed a lot over the centuries (where, for example, the meaning of good has undergone a complete reversal throughout its history), and this is despite the fact that throughout that time, the proponents of those particular views of God or morality believe that these concepts have never changed and will never change.

Nietzsche believes that all change is ultimately driven by a will to power, where this will is a sort of instinct for autonomy, and which also consists of a desire to impose one’s will onto others.  So the meaning of these concepts (such as God or morality) and countless others have only changed because they’ve been re-appropriated by different or conflicting wills to power.  As such, he thinks that the meaning and interpretation of a concept illustrate the attributes of the particular will making use of those concepts, rather than some absolute truth about reality.  I think this idea makes a lot of sense if we regard the will to power as not only encompassing the desires belonging to any individual (most especially their desire for autonomy), but also the inferences they’ve made about reality, it’s apparent causal relations, etc., which provide the content for those desires.  So any will to power is effectively colored by the world view held by the individual, and this world view or set of inferred causal relations includes one’s inferences pertaining to language and any meaning ascribed to the words and concepts that one uses.

Even more interesting to me is the distinction Nietzsche makes between what he calls an unrefined use or version of the will to power and one that is refined.  The unrefined form of a will to power takes the desire for autonomy and directs it outward (perhaps more instinctually) in order to dominate the will of others.  The refined version on the other hand takes this desire for autonomy and directs it inward toward oneself, manifesting itself as a kind of cruelty which causes a person to constantly struggle to make themselves stronger, more independent, and to provide them with a deeper character and perhaps even a deeper understanding of themselves and their view of the world.  Both manifestations of the will to power seem to try and simply maximize one’s power over as much as possible, but the latter refined version is believed by Nietzsche to be superior and ultimately a more effective form of power.

We can better illustrate this view by considering a person who tries to dominate others to gain power in part because they lack the ability to gain power over their own autonomy, and then compare this to a person who gains control over their own desires and autonomy and therefore doesn’t need to compensate for any inadequacy by dominating others.  A person who feels a need to dominate others is in effect dependent on those subordinates (and dependence implies a certain lack of power), but a person who increases their power over themselves gains more independence and thus a form of freedom that is otherwise not possible.

I like this internal/external distinction that Nietzsche makes, but I’d like to build on it a little and suggest that both expressions of a will to power can be seen as complementary strategies to fulfill one’s desire for maximal autonomy, but with the added caveat that this autonomy serves to fulfill a desire for maximal causal power by harnessing as much control over our experience and understanding of the world as possible.  On the one hand, we can try and change the world in certain ways to fulfill this desire (including through the domination of other wills to power), or we can try and change ourselves and our view of the world (up to and including changing our desires if we find them to be misdirecting us away from our greatest goal).  We may even change our desires such that they are compatible with an external force attempting to dominate us, thus rendering the external domination powerless (or at least less powerful than it was), and then we could conceivably regain a form of power over our experience and understanding of the world.

I’ve argued elsewhere that I think that our view of the world as well as our actions and desires can be properly described as predictions of various causal relations (this is based on my personal view of knowledge combined with a Predictive Processing account of brain function).  Reconciling this train of thought with Nietzsche’s basic idea of a will to power, I think we could say that our will to power depends on our predictions of the world and its many apparent causal relations.  We could equate maximal autonomy with maximal predictive success (including the predictions pertaining to our desires). Looking at autonomy and a will to power in this way, we can see that one is more likely to make successful predictions about the actions of another if they subjugate the other’s will to power by their own.  And one can also increase the success of their predictions by changing them in the right ways, including increasing their complexity to better match the causal structure of the world, and by changing our desires and actions as well.

Another thing to consider about a desire for autonomy is that it is better formulated if it includes whatever is required for its own sustainability.  Dominating other wills to power will often serve to promote a sustainable autonomy for the dominator because then those other wills aren’t as likely to become dominators themselves and reverse the direction of dominance, and this preserves the autonomy of the dominating will to power.  This shows how this particular external expression of a will to power could be naturally selected for (under certain circumstances at least) which Nietzsche himself even argued (though in an anti-Darwinian form since genes are not the unit of selection here, but rather behaviors).  This type of behavioral selection would explain it’s prevalence in the animal kingdom including in a number of primate species aside from human beings.  I do think however that we’ve found many ways of overcoming the need or impulse to dominate and it has a lot to do with having adopted social contract theory, since in my view it provides a way of maximizing the average will to power for all parties involved.

Coming back to Nietzsche’s take on language, truth, and dogmatism, we can also see that an increasingly potent will to power is more easily achievable if it is able to formulate and test new tentative predictions about the world, rather than being locked in to some set of predictions (which is dogmatism at it’s core).  Being able to adapt one’s predictions is equivalent to considering and adopting a new point of view, a capability which Nietzsche described as inherent in any free spirit.  It also amounts to being able to more easily free ourselves from the shackles of language, just as Nietzsche advocated for, since new points of view affect the meaning that we ascribe to words and concepts.  I would add to this, the fact that new points of view can also increase our chances of making more successful predictions that constitute our understanding of the world (and ourselves), because we can test them against our previous world view and see if this leads to more or less error, better parsimony, and so on.

Nietzsche’s hope was that one day all philosophy would be flexible enough to overcome its dogmatic prejudices, its claims of absolute truths, including those revolving around morality and concepts like good and evil.  He sees these concepts as nothing more than superficial expressions of one particular will to power or another, and thus he wants philosophy to eventually move itself beyond good and evil.  Personally, I am a proponent of an egoistic goal theory of morality, which grounds all morality on what maximizes the satisfaction and life fulfillment of the individual (which includes cultivating virtues such as compassion, honesty, and reasonableness), and so I believe that good and evil, when properly defined, are more than simply superficial expressions.

But I agree with Nietzsche in part, because I think these concepts have been poorly defined and misused such that they appear to have no inherent meaning.  And I also agree with Nietzsche in that I reject moral absolutism and its associated dogma (as found in religion most especially), because I believe morality to be dynamic in various ways, contingent on the specific situations we find ourselves in and the ever-changing idiosyncrasies of our human psychology.  Human beings often find themselves in completely novel situations and cultural evolution is making this happen more and more frequently.  And our species is also changing because of biological evolution as well.  So even though I agree that moral facts exist (with an objective foundation), and that a subset of these facts are likely to be universal due to the overlap between our biology and psychology, I do not believe that any of these moral facts are absolute because there are far too many dynamic variables for an absolute morality to work even in principle.  Nietzsche was definitely on the right track here.

Putting this all together, I’d like to think that our will to power has an underlying impetus, namely a drive for maximal satisfaction and life fulfillment.  If this is true then our drive for maximal autonomy and control over our experience and understanding of the world serves to fulfill what we believe will maximize this overall satisfaction and fulfillment.  However, when people are irrational, dogmatic, and/or are not well-informed on the relevant facts (and this happens a lot!), this is more likely to lead to an unrefined will to power that is less conducive to achieving that goal, where dominating the wills of others and any number of other immoral behaviors overtakes the character of the individual.  Our best chance of finding a fulfilling path in life (while remaining intellectually honest) is going to require an open mind, a willingness to criticize our own beliefs and assumptions, and a concerted effort to try and overcome our own limitations.  Nietzsche’s philosophy (much of it at least) serves as a powerful reminder of this admirable goal.

Some Thoughts on “Fear & Trembling”

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I’ve been meaning to write this post for quite some time, but haven’t had the opportunity until now, so here it goes.  I want to explore some of Kierkegaard’s philosophical claims or themes in his book Fear and Trembling.  Kierkegaard regarded himself as a Christian and so there are a lot of literary themes revolving around faith and the religious life, but he also centers a lot of his philosophy around the subjective individual, all of which I’d like to look at in more detail.

In Fear and Trembling, we hear about the story found in Genesis (Ch. 22) where Abraham attempts to sacrifice his own beloved son Isaac, after hearing God command him to do so.  For those unfamiliar with this biblical story, after they journey out to mount Moriah he binds Isaac to an alter, and as Abraham draws his knife to slit the throat of his beloved son, an angel appears just in time and tells him to stop “for now I know that you fear God”.  Then Abraham sees a goat nearby and sacrifices it instead of his son.  Kierkegaard uses this story in various ways, and considers four alternative versions of it (and their consequences), to explicate the concept of faith as admirable though fundamentally incomprehensible and unintelligible.

He begins his book by telling us about a man who has deeply admired this story of Abraham ever since he first heard it as a child, with this admiration for it growing stronger over time while understanding the story less and less.  The man considers four alternative versions of the story to try and better understand Abraham and how he did what he did, but never manages to obtain this understanding.

I’d like to point out here that an increased confusion would be expected if the man has undergone moral and intellectual growth during his journey from childhood to adulthood.  We tend to be more impulsive, irrational and passionate as children, with less regard for any ethical framework to live by.  And sure enough, Kierkegaard even mentions the importance of passion in making a leap of faith.  Nevertheless, as we continue to mature and accumulate life experience, we tend to develop some control over our passions and emotions, we build up our intellect and rationality, and also further develop an ethic with many ethical behaviors becoming habituated if cultivated over time.  If a person cultivates moral virtues like compassion, honesty, and reasonableness, then it would be expected that they’d find Abraham’s intended act of murder (let alone filicide) repugnant.  But, regardless of the reasons for the man’s lack of understanding, he admires the story more and more, likely because it reveres Abraham as the father of faith, and portrays faith itself as a most honorable virtue.

Kierkegaard’s main point in Fear and Trembling is that one has to suspend their relation to the ethical (contrary to Kant and Hegel), in order to make any leap of faith, and that there’s no rational decision making process involved.  And so it seems clear that Kierkegaard knows that what Abraham did in this story was entirely unethical (attempting to kill an innocent child) in at least one sense of the word ethical, but he believes nevertheless that this doesn’t matter.

To see where he’s coming from, we need to understand Kierkegaard’s idea that there are basically three ways or stages of living, namely the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious.  The aesthetic life is that of sensuous or felt experience, infinite potentiality through imagination, hiddenness or privacy, and an overarching egotism focused on the individual.  The ethical life supersedes or transcends this aesthetic way of life by relating one to “the universal”, that is, to the common good of all people, to social contracts, and to the betterment of others over oneself.  The ethical life, according to Kierkegaard, also consists of public disclosure or transparency.  Finally, the religious life supersedes the ethical (and thus also supersedes the aesthetic) but shares some characteristics of both the aesthetic and the ethical.

The religious, like the aesthetic, operates on the level of the individual, but with the added component of the individual having a direct relation to God.  And just like the ethical, the religious appeals to a conception of good and evil behavior, but God is the arbiter in this way of life rather than human beings or their nature.  Thus the sphere of ethics that Abraham might normally commit himself to in other cases is thought to be superseded by the religious sphere, the sphere of faith.  Within this sphere of faith, Abraham assumes that anything that God commands is Abraham’s absolute duty to uphold, and he also has faith that this will lead to the best ends.  This of course, is known as a form of divine command theory, which is actually an ethical and meta-ethical theory.  Although Kierkegaard claims that the religious is somehow above the ethical, it is for the most part just another way of living that involves another ethical principle.  In this case, the ethical principle is for one to do whatever God commands them to (even if these commands are inconsistent or morally repugnant from a human perspective), and this should be done rather than abiding by our moral conscience or some other set of moral rules, social mores, or any standards based on human judgment, human nature, etc.

It appears that the primary distinction between the ethical and the religious is the leap of faith that is made in the latter stage of living which involves an act performed “in virtue of the absurd”.  For example, Abraham’s faith in God was really a faith that God wouldn’t actually make him kill his son Isaac.  Had Abraham been lacking in this particular faith, Kierkegaard seems to argue that Abraham’s conscience and moral perspective (which includes “the universal”) would never have allowed him to do what he did.  Thus, Abraham’s faith, according to Kierkegaard, allowed him to (at least temporarily) suspend the ethical in virtue of the absurd notion that somehow the ethical would be maintained in the end.  In other words, Abraham thought that he could obey God’s command, even if this command was prima facie immoral, because he had faith that God wouldn’t actually make Abraham perform an unethical act.

I find it interesting that this particular function or instantiation of faith, as outlined by Kierkegaard, makes for an unusual interpretation of divine command theory.  If divine command theory attempts to define good or moral behavior as that which God commands, and if a leap of faith (such as that which Abraham took) can involve a belief that the end result of an unconscionable commandment is actually its negation or retraction, then a leap of faith such as that taken by Abraham would serve to contradict divine command theory to at least some degree.  It would seem that Kierkegaard wants to believe in the basic premise of divine command theory and therefore have an absolute duty to obey whatever God commands, and yet he also wants to believe that if this command goes against a human moral system or the human conscience, it will not end up doing so when one goes to carry out what has actually been commanded of them.  This seems to me to be an unusual pair of beliefs for one to hold simultaneously, for divine command theory allows for Abraham to have actually carried out the murder of his son (with no angel stopping him at the last second), and this heinous act would have been considered a moral one under such an awful theory.  And yet, Abraham had faith that this divine command would somehow be nullified and therefore reconciled with his own conscience and relation to the universal.

Kierkegaard has something to say about beliefs, and how they differ from faith-driven dispositions, and it’s worth noting this since most of us use the term “belief” as including that which one has faith in.  For Kierkegaard, belief implies that one is assured of its truth in some way, whereas faith requires one to accept the possibility that what they have faith in could be proven wrong.  Thus, it wasn’t enough for Abraham to believe in an absolute duty to obey whatever God commanded of him, because that would have simply been a case of obedience, and not faith.  Instead, Abraham also had to have faith that God would let Abraham spare his son Isaac, while accepting the possibility that he may be proven wrong and end up having to kill his son after all.  As such, Kierkegaard wouldn’t accept the way the term “faith” is often used in modern religious parlance.  Religious practitioners often say that they have faith in something and yet “know it to be true”, “know it for certain”, “know it will happen”, etc.  But if Abraham truly believed (let alone knew for certain) that God wouldn’t make him kill Isaac, then God’s command wouldn’t have served as any true test of faith.  So while Abraham may have believed that he had to kill his son, he also had faith that his son wouldn’t die, hence making a leap of faith in virtue of the absurd.

This distinction between belief and faith also seems to highlight Kierkegaard’s belief in some kind of prophetic consequentialist ethical framework.  Whereas most Christians tend to side with a Kantian deontological ethical system, Kierkegaard points out that ethical systems have rules which are meant to promote the well-being of large groups of people.  And since humans lack the ability to see far into the future, it’s possible that some rules made under this kind of ignorance may actually lead to an end that harms twenty people and only helps one.  Kierkegaard believes that faith in God can answer this uncertainty and circumvent the need to predict the outcome of our moral rules by guaranteeing a better end given the vastly superior knowledge that God has access to.  And any ethical system that appeals to the ends as justifying the means is a form of consequentialism (utilitarianism is perhaps the most common type of ethical consequentialism).

Although I disagree with Kiergegaard on a lot of points, such as his endorsement of divine command theory, and his appeal to an epistemologically bankrupt behavior like taking a leap of faith, I actually agree with Kierkegaard on his teleological ethical reasoning.  He’s right in his appealing to the ends in order to justify the means, and he’s right to want maximal knowledge involved in determining how best to achieve those ends.  It seems clear to me that all moral systems ultimately break down to a form of consequentialism anyway (a set of hypothetical imperatives), and any disagreement between moral systems is really nothing more than a disagreement about what is factual or a disagreement about which consequences should be taken into account (e.g. happiness of the majority, happiness of the least well off, self-contentment for the individual, how we see ourselves as a person, etc.).

It also seems clear that if you are appealing to some set of consequences in determining what is and is not moral behavior, then having maximal knowledge is your best chance of achieving those ends.  But we can only determine the reliability of the knowledge by seeing how well it predicts the future (through inferred causal relations), and that means we can only establish the veracity of any claimed knowledge through empirical means.  Since nobody has yet been able to establish that a God (or gods) exists through any empirical means, it goes without saying that nobody has been able to establish the veracity of any God-knowledge.

Lacking the ability to test this, one would also need to have faith in God’s knowledge, which means they’ve merely replaced one form of uncertainty (the predicted versus actual ends of human moral systems) with another form of uncertainty (the predicted versus actual knowledge of God).  Since the predicted versus actual ends of our moral systems can actually be tested, while the knowledge of God cannot, then we have a greater uncertainty in God’s knowledge than in the efficacy and accuracy of our own moral systems.  This is a problem for Kierkegaard, because his position seems to be that the leap of faith taken by Abraham was essentially grounded on the assumption that God had superior knowledge to achieve the best telos, and thus his position is entirely unsupportable.

Aside from the problems inherent in Kierkegaard’s beliefs about faith and God, I do like his intense focus on the priority of the individual.  As mentioned already, both the aesthetic and religious ways of life that have been described operate on this individual level.  However, one criticism I have to make about Kierkegaard’s life-stage trichotomy is that morality/ethics actually does operate on the individual level even if it also indirectly involves the community or society at large.  And although it is not egotistic like the aesthetic life is said to be, it is egoistic because rational self-interest is in fact at the heart of all moral systems that are consistent and sufficiently motivating to follow.

If you maximize your personal satisfaction and life fulfillment by committing what you believe to be a moral act over some alternative that you believe will make you less fulfilled and thus less overall satisfied (such as not obeying God), then you are acting for your own self-interest (by obeying God), even if you are not acting in an explicitly selfish way.  A person can certainly be wrong about what will actually make them most satisfied and fulfilled, but this doesn’t negate one’s intention to do so.  Acting for the betterment of others over oneself (i.e. living by or for “the universal”) involves behaviors that lead you to a more fulfilling life, in part based on how those actions affect your view of yourself and your character.  If one believes in gods or a God, then their perspective on their belief of how God sees them will also affect their view of themselves.  In short, a properly formulated ethics is centered around the individual even if it seems otherwise.

Given the fact that Kierkegaard seems to have believed that the ethical life revolved around the universal rather than the individual, perhaps it’s no wonder that he would choose to elevate some kind of individualistic stage of life, namely the religious life, over that of the ethical.  It would be interesting to see how his stages of life may have looked had he believed in a more individualistic theory of ethics.  I find that an egoistic ethical framework actually fits quite nicely with the rest of Kierkegaard’s overtly individualistic philosophy.

He ends this book by pointing out that passion is required in order to have faith, and passion isn’t something that somebody can teach us, unlike the epistemic fruits of rational reflection.  Instead, passion has to be experienced firsthand in order for us to understand it at all.  He contrasts this passion with the disinterested intellectualization involved in reflection, which was the means used in Hegel’s approach to try and understand faith.

Kierkegaard doesn’t think that Hegel’s method will suffice since it isn’t built upon a fundamentally subjective experiential foundation and instead tries to understand faith and systematize it through an objective analysis based on logic and rational reflection.  Although I see logic and rational reflection as most important for best achieving our overall happiness and life fulfillment, I can still appreciate the significant role of passion and felt experience within the human condition, our attraction to it, and it’s role in religious belief.  I can also appreciate how our overall satisfaction and life fulfillment are themselves instantiated and evaluated as a subjective felt experience, and one that is entirely individualistic.  And so I can’t help but agree with Kierkegaard, in recognizing that there is no substitute for a subjective experience, and no way to adequately account for the essence of those experiences through entirely non-subjective (objective) means.

The individual subject and their conscious experience is of primary importance (it’s the only thing we can be certain exists), and the human need to find meaning in an apparently meaningless world is perhaps the most important facet of that ongoing conscious experience.  Even though I disagree with a lot of what Kierkegaard believed, it wasn’t all bull$#!+.  I think he captured and expressed some very important points about the individual and some of the psychological forces that color the view of our personal identity and our own existence.

Moral Deliberation, Religious Freedom & Church-State Separation

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I’m glad we live in a society where we have the freedom to believe whatever we want to believe.  No matter how crazy or dangerous some of these beliefs are, no matter how unreasonable and irrational some of them may be, and no matter whether some of these beliefs may hurt others and detract from their happiness and life fulfillment, we have the freedom to believe them nevertheless.  We also live in a representative democracy (for now at least), thereby granting us the freedom to vote for political representatives and the policies they stand for and in some cases granting us the freedom to vote for some of the particular laws themselves.  Combining these two freedoms, freedom of belief and freedom to vote, we have the freedom to vote for a particular candidate or law based on whatever reason or belief we wish.  It is this latter freedom that I believe is being grossly abused by so many in this country.

I’ve written previously about the imperative of democracy for any just society, but within that post I also mentioned the (perhaps) equal importance of moral deliberation within any just democratic framework.  People should be justifying their votes and their positions on particular issues through a moral deliberative process.  We do this to some degree already but not nearly enough and not in any useful public format.

We can’t simply leave it up to a room full of politicians to decide for us (as we primarily do now) as then all the individual perspectives that constitute and drive the public’s understanding of some issue become truncated, distorted, or superseded by some kind of misleading rhetorical caricature that can take on a life of its own.

Our society needs a political system which stresses the need to justify the laws enacted through moral deliberation not only to create more transparency in the political process but also to help resolve moral disagreements (to the best of our ability) through a process of open and inclusive critical discourse, helping to encourage citizens to form a more well-rounded perspective on public policy.  The increase in transparency is not only to help us distinguish between political aims that are self-interested from those that are actually in the public’s best interests, but also to point out the different fundamental reasons driving people’s voting preferences.  In order to point out errors in one another’s reasoning (if there are any errors), we have to talk with each other about our reasons and the thought processes that have led us to some particular point of view.  It may be that the disagreement is about a difference in what we value but often times its due to a rational argument opposing an irrational argument.

Moral deliberation would help us to illustrate when political or legislative points of view are grounded on beliefs in the supernatural or other beliefs that are not based on evidence that the opposing side can examine and consider.  We may find points of view that are dependent on someone’s religious beliefs, which if voted to become the law of the land, could actually exclude the religious freedom of others (simply by majority rule).

Let’s consider abortion and embryonic stem cell research as examples.  If through a moral deliberative process we come to find that people are voting to ban the right to an abortion or to ban the use of life-saving medical technologies that require embryonic stem cells, because they believe that human embryos have souls or some other magical property, then we need to point out that creating a law grounded on non-demonstrable religious beliefs (such as the belief in souls) is not something that can reasonably be implemented without violating the religious rights of everyone in that society that do not share their unfalsifiable belief in souls.  Those people should consider what they would feel like if a religion other than their own became endorsed by the majority and tried to push for legislation based on some other unfalsifiable religious dogma.

Ultimately, a majority rule that enacts legislation based on religious belief is analogous to eradicating the separation of church and state, but rather than having the church or churches with direct political power over our laws, instead they indirectly obtain their political power by influencing their congregations to vote for some law that is deemed acceptable by the church’s own dogma.  It’s one thing for a religious institution to point out what evidence or secular arguments exist to support their position or that of their opponents, whereby the arguments can at least move forward by examining said evidence and seeing where it leads us.  But when an argument is based on beliefs that have no evidence to support them, then it lacks the objective character needed to justifiably ground a new law of the land — a law that will come to exist and apply to all in a secularized society (as opposed to a theocracy).

If we are to avoid slipping further into a theocracy, then we need to better utilize moral deliberation to tease out the legislative justifications that are based on unfalsifiable beliefs such as beliefs in disembodied minds and magic and so forth, so we can shift the argument to exclude any unfalsifiable beliefs and reasoning.  Disagreeing on the facts themselves is a different matter that we’ll always have to deal with, but disagreeing on whether or not to use facts and evidence in our legislative decision-making process is beyond ridiculous and is an awful and disrespectful abuse of the freedoms that so many of our ancestors have fought and died to protect.

The arguments surrounding abortion rights and stem cell research, for example, once the conversation shifts from the personal to the political sphere, should likewise shift from those that can include unfalsifiable supernatural beliefs to those that eventually exclude them entirely.  By relying on falsifiable secular claims and arguments, one can better approximate a line of argumentation that is more likely to transcend any particular religious or philosophical system.  By doing so we can also better discover what it is that we actually value in our everyday lives.  Do we value an undetectable, invisible, disembodied mind that begins to inhabit fertilized eggs at some arbitrary point in time?  A magical substance that, if it exists, is inadvertently flushed out of many women’s uteri countless times (by failing to implant an egg after conception) without their giving it a second thought?  Or rather do we value persons, human persons in particular, with consciousness, the ability to think and feel, and that have a personality (a minimum attribute of any person)?

I think it’s the latter that we actually value (on both sides of the aisle, despite the apparent contradiction in their convictions), so even if we ignore compelling arguments for bodily autonomy and only focus on arguments from person-hood as they relate to abortion and embryonic stem cell research, we should see that what we actually value isn’t under threat when people have an abortion (at least, not before consciousness and a personality develops in the fetus around the 25th-30th week of gestation) nor is what we value with persons under threat when we carry out embryonic stem cell research, since once again there is no person under threat but only a potential future person (just as blueprints are a potential future building, or an acorn is a potential future oak tree).  If I choose to destroy the blueprints or the acorn to achieve some other end I desire, nobody should falsely equivocate that with destroying a building or an oak tree. Unfortunately, that is what many people do when they consider abortion or embryonic stem cell research, where even if they limit their arguments to falsifiable claims and make no mention of souls — they falsely equivocate the potential future person with an actual realized person.  In doing so, they falsely attribute an intrinsic value to something that is only extrinsically valuable.  It should be said though that the latter argument to ban abortion or embryonic stem cell research, while still logically fallacious, is at least based on falsifiable claims that can be discussed and considered, without any mention of souls or other non-demonstrables.

It should be pointed out here that I’m not saying that people can’t decide how they ought to act based on religious beliefs or other beliefs regarding magic or the supernatural.  What I am saying is that one should be able to use those non-secular reasons to guide their own behavior with respect to whether or not they will have an abortion or have their embryo used for stem cell research.  That’s fine and dandy even though I strongly discourage anybody and everybody from making decisions that aren’t based on reason and evidence.  Nevertheless I think it’s one’s right to do so, but what they most definitely shouldn’t do is use such reasons to justify what other people can or can’t do.

If I have a religious belief that leads me to believe that it is immoral to feed my children broccoli (for some unfalsifiable reason), should I try to make it a law of the land that no other parents are allowed to feed their children broccoli?  Or should I use my religious belief to simply inform my own actions and not try to force others to comply with my religious belief?  Which seems like a more American ideal?  Which seems more fair to every independent citizen, each with their own individual liberties?  Now what if I find out that there’s a substance in the broccoli that leads to brain damage if fed to children of a certain age?  Well then we would now have a secular reason, more specifically a falsifiable reason, to ban broccoli (where we didn’t before) and so it would no longer need to remain isolated from the law of the land, but can (and should) be instantiated in a law that would protect children from harmful brain damage.  This legislation would make sense because we value conscious persons, and because reasons that appeal to evidence can and should be examined by everyone living in a society to inform them of what laws of the land should and shouldn’t be put into place.

In summary, I think it is clear that our freedom of belief and freedom to vote are being abused by those that want to use their non-demonstrable, religiously grounded moral claims to change the law of the land rather than to simply use those non-demonstrable moral claims to guide their own actions.  What we should be doing instead is limiting our freedom to vote such that the justifications we impose on our decisions are necessarily based on demonstrable moral claims and beliefs (even if our values differ person to person).  And this still allows us the freedom to continue using any number of demonstrable and non-demonstrable moral claims to guide our own behavior as we see fit.  This is the only way to maintain true religious freedom in any democratic society, and we need to push for the kind of moral deliberation that will get us there.

“The Brothers Karamazov”: A Moral & Philosophical Critique (Part IV)

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Throughout this post series on Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (click here for parts 1, 2, and 3), I’ve been writing about some of the themes and concepts that are of particular interest to me, for example, the concepts of moral objectivity, God, an afterlife, immortal souls, free will and determinism, moral desert, and others.  In this post, I wanted to tie these themes all together with the main theme present throughout this entire novel, namely the existentially relevant conflict between religious faith and doubt.

Dostoyevsky clearly has a bias toward a world view that is based on or embedded within religious faith, and this can be seen most explicitly by the distinctions he makes between the idealistic religious characters Alyosha and father Zosima, and that of the logical skepticism instantiated by the atheistic Ivan (and through his influence, Smerdyakov).  Alyosha and Zosima clearly display an active form of love, forgiveness, and a consistent effort to do good in the world presumably predicated on their belief in the existence of God (though a very particular formulation of God is necessary here, not simply any kind of God).  Ivan on the other hand, as a result of his attributes of rationality, logic, and the importance he places on empirical evidence and analysis, ends up rejecting any belief in God (or at least, rejecting any belief in a good or loving God due to the Problem of Evil), rejecting conventional notions of (or foundations for) morality, and subsequently maintains a cold and callous view of mankind while suffering from a debilitating form of inner despair.

From the contrast seen between these limited character types (and many more characters in the novel), we are to ascertain that a life embedded in religious faith is clearly one with more happiness, stability, and goodness, whereas a life presumably encumbered by religious doubt is a life filled with chaos, despair, and often evil or immoral behavior.  As I’ve alluded to in my previous posts in this series, I think this perspective is highly flawed for a number of reasons.  However, in defense of Dostoyevsky’s perspective, I will say that I think it is often the case that religious faith inspires people to be happier than they otherwise would be, that it often gives people another form of social or psychological stability in an otherwise chaotic world (that’s why humans invented religion in the first place), and that it can lead people to do many good things.  And likewise, I will even concede that religious doubt or atheistic worldviews can often be nihilistic, and if so, can lead to less happy lives, less social or psychological stability, and possibly leading to more immoral behavior (though some religious beliefs can promote immoral behavior as well).  I wouldn’t describe my own atheism this way by any means, but many atheists would likely fit the bill (so to speak).

The problem however with Dostoyevsky’s perspective is that it is misleading with respect to the implied inherent characteristics of these divergent world views (theism vs. atheism), the obvious social and institutional causal factors that reinforce those different types of behaviors (what religious and non-religious institutions exist at any point in time), and the fact that people that abandon or reject religious faith often haven’t critically examined or formulated the philosophical foundations for their belief systems.  People that are indoctrinated with various religious beliefs often use the religion itself (or various theological claims) and the cultural traditions that have followed from them, as the foundation for many of their beliefs including those pertaining to morality, a sense of purpose, and ultimate meaning in their lives — a mistaken foundation that unfortunately has become deeply ingrained in our society and for quite some time now.

This erroneous foundation has become deeply ingrained, most especially in societies that have been Christianized or that have been theocratic at one time or another.  As a result, even if secularization eventually occurs in those societies (with the separation of church and state often improving lives by increasing equality and human rights), many non-religious individuals within those societies simply don’t know how to ground many of their beliefs within some secular/atheistic philosophical framework.  The assumed religious foundation for many of those beliefs has simply been taken for granted, and if that foundation goes away with secularization, and people actually realize that the foundation they once had for those beliefs is no longer valid, many people don’t know how to avoid slipping into some form of nihilism.

Nietzsche spoke about this process in his Will to Power, that is, the process of inevitably slipping into nihilism once one realizes that the foundation for their beliefs is in fact a false one.  The problem is, as Nietzsche pointed out, that nihilism should be treated as merely a transitional stage since it is ultimately pathological, and like all pathologies, ultimately needs to be overcome.  People slipping into nihilism and then concluding that life is meaningless or that moral action is meaningless is really a result of a false generalization.  Rather than rejecting their old beliefs and striving to search for new beliefs or a new foundation for them, some people simply give up the search and then erroneously think that there can’t be any real meaning in their lives or in humanity.  Nietzsche saw this perceived futility as fallacious, and believed that it really should be seen as an opportunity for one to find their own form of meaning for their lives, without any need of anything superhuman or supernatural.  Once one realizes this error in their nihilism, they can shift from a passive form of nihilism to an active one, such that it truly becomes a transitional stage toward a non-nihilistic world view.

In The Brothers Karamazov, the atheistic character, Ivan, seems to have simply fallen into a more or less passive form of nihilism.  As such, Ivan seems to have made the same erroneous generalization that Nietzsche warned us of.  Having been so deeply entrenched in a Christianized society, his lack of belief in God has pulled his (presumably original) foundation for morality out from under him, leading him to think that without God, anything is permissible and therefore no action can be said to be truly good or bad.  Dostoyevsky seems to believe (or so implies with his characters) that this passive form of nihilism (or something analogous to it) is all that can result with individuals that lack religious faith.  And on the other end of the spectrum, his devout religious characters (Alyosha and father Zosima in particular) don’t suffer from this problem because their belief in God, some of their religious traditions, and their particular religious perspective, have bestowed upon them a perceived foundation for their values and purpose in life.  Though this foundation is one that is not based on reason and evidence and therefore can have no reasonable claim of being true or valid, religious people nevertheless believe that it is true and valid and so it inevitably motivates their behavior which can often be for good.

So I think it’s fair to say that I agree with Dostoyevsky at least insofar as religious doubt (when compared to religious faith) can lead people down a path of decreased happiness and with a general disregard for (at least certain) moral considerations.  However, this is generally only going to be the case when those with religious doubt slip into a passive form of nihilism (rather than an active form, that can lead to a re-grounding and/or reformulation of one’s values).  And Ivan, with his admiration for evidence-based logic, should have realized that this passive form of nihilism is irrational and illogical, a fact that becomes obvious once one critically considers what human morality really is and what it is not (i.e. it is not rationally nor pragmatically based on Divine Command Theory, or any form of religious faith or dogma — even if people mistakenly believe this to be the case).  And it is a fact that becomes obvious once one realizes how morality is actually grounded in the natural world, where it can be described and optimized using a number of objective facts pertaining to our psychology, our biology, and how we interact with one another as a social species.

The radical freedom that people find themselves possessing in this world creates an existential crisis as Dostoyevsky and many other philosophers (such as Kierkegaard, Sartre and others) have talked about at great length.  This crisis leads many people into adopting any manner of beliefs, including but not limited to religious beliefs, to help them cope with this burden of choice (among other things to cope with), and to help make sense of a highly chaotic world.  Others that reject the religious path for coping and that are also unable to do so within their atheistic framework, will likely be led to a worldview full of despair and (passive) nihilism.  But if people want to have the most fulfilling lives that they can, while also seeking the truth to make as responsible of decisions as they are able to (including moral decisions), then they must find a way to incorporate reason and evidence into their philosophical framework (which means eventually rejecting religious faith and dogma) while not losing sight of the non-nihilistic end goal that they ought to strive for.

We need to give our own meaning to our lives and only then will we will be able to maximize our personal satisfaction and life fulfillment.  The current challenge for our society is finding more ways of replacing religious institutions with secular versions that accomplish the social cohesive structure that many people long for, and to better prepare and empower our children and the young adults in our society with more rigorous philosophical training in ethics and epistemology.  Reading the works of wonderful authors such as Dostoyevsky should be a part of this philosophical training, so we can look at our lives from multiple perspectives with any number of often difficult to describe nuances and subtleties, to find the truths and flaws in those perspectives and build off of them to better understand ourselves and to get where we want to go as individuals and as a species.  I must say that I’ve rather enjoyed writing this post series, reading this wonderful novel, and I hope to do more post series like these in the future.

“The Brothers Karamazov” – A Moral & Philosophical Critique (Part III)

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In the first two posts that I wrote in this series (part I and part II) concerning some concepts and themes mentioned in Dostoyevksy’s The Brothers Karamazov, I talked about moral realism and how it pertains to theism and atheism (and the character Ivan’s own views), and I also talked about moral responsibility and free will to some degree (and how this related to the interplay between Ivan and Smerdyakov).  In this post, I’m going to look at the concept of moral conscience and intuition, and how they apply to Ivan’s perspective and his experiencing an ongoing hallucination of a demonic apparition.  This demonic apparition only begins to haunt Ivan after hearing that his influence on his brother Smerdyakov led him to murder their father Fyodor.  The demon continues to torment Ivan until just before his other brother Alyosha informs him that Smerdyakov has committed suicide.  Then I’ll conclude with some discussion on the concept of moral desert (justice).

It seems pretty clear that the demonic apparition that appears to Ivan is a psychosomatic hallucination brought about as a manifestation of Ivan’s overwhelming guilt for what his brother has done, since he feels that he bears at least some of the responsibility for his brothers actions.  We learn earlier in the story that Zosima, a wise elder living at a monastery who acts as a mentor and teacher to Alyosha, had explained to Ivan that everyone bears at least some responsibility for the actions of everyone around them because human causality is so heavily intertwined with one person’s actions having a number of complicated effects on the actions of everyone else.  Despite Ivan’s strong initial reservations against this line of reasoning, he seems to have finally accepted that Zosima was right — hence him suffering a nervous breakdown as a result of realizing this.

Obviously Ivan’s moral conscience seems to be driving this turn of events and this is the case whether or not Ivan explicitly believes that morality is real.  And so we can see that despite Ivan’s moral skepticism, his moral intuitions and/or his newly accepted moral dispositions as per Zosima, have led him to his current state of despair.  Similarly, Ivan’s views on the problem of evil — whereby the vast amount of suffering in the world either refutes the existence of God, or shows that this God (if he does exist) must be a moral monster — betray even more of Ivan’s moral views with respect to how he wants the world to be.  His wanting the world to have less suffering in it, along with his wishing that his brother had not committed murder (let alone as a result of his influence on his brother), illustrates a number of moral “oughts” that Ivan subscribes to.  And whether they’re simply based on his moral intuitions or also rational moral reflection, they illustrate the deeply rooted psychological aspects of morality that are an inescapable facet of the human condition.

This situation also helps to explain some of the underlying motivations behind my own reversion back toward some form of moral realism, after becoming an atheist myself, initially catalyzed by my own moral intuitions and then later solidified and justified by rational moral reflection on objective facts pertaining to human psychology and other factors.  Now it should be said that moral intuitions on their own are only a generally useful heuristic as they are often misguiding (and incorrect) which is why it is imperative that they are checked by a rational assessment of the facts at hand.  But, nevertheless, they help to illustrate how good and evil can be said to be real (in at least some sense), even to someone like Ivan that doesn’t think they have an objective foundation.  They may not be conceptions of good and evil as described in many religions, with supernatural baggage attached, but they are real nonetheless.

Another interesting point worth noting is in regard to Zosima’s discussion about mutual moral responsibility.  While I already discussed moral responsibility in the last post along with its relation to free will, there’s something rather paradoxical about Dostoyevsky’s reasoning as expressed through Zosima that I found quite interesting.  Zosima talks about how love and forgiveness are necessary because everyone’s actions are intertwined with everyone else’s and therefore everyone bears some responsibility for the sins of others.  This idea of shared responsibility is abhorrent to those in the story that doubt God and the Christian religion (such as Ivan), who only want to be responsible for their own actions, but the complex intertwined causal chain that Zosima speaks of is the same causal chain that many determinists invoke to explain our lack of libertarian free will and how we can’t be held responsible in a causa sui manner for our actions.

Thus, if someone dies and there is in fact an afterlife, by Zosima’s own reasoning that person should not be judged as an individual solely responsible for their actions either.  That person should instead receive unconditional love and forgiveness and be redeemed rather than punished.  But this idea is anathema to standard Christian theology where one is supposed to be judged and given eternal paradise or eternal torment (with vastly disproportionate consequences given the finite degree of one’s actions).  It’s no surprise that Zosima isn’t looked upon as a model clergyman by some of his fellow monks in the monastery because his emphatic preaching about love and forgiveness undermines the typical heavy-handed judgemental aspects of God within Christianity.  But in any case, if God exists and understood that people were products of their genes and their environment which is causally interconnected with everyone else’s (i.e. libertarian free will is logically impossible), then a loving God would grant everyone forgiveness after death and grant them eternal paradise based on that understanding.  And oddly enough, this also undermines Ivan’s own reasoning that good and evil can only exist with an afterlife that undergoes judgement, because forgiveness and eternal paradise should be granted to everyone in the afterlife (by a truly loving God) if Zosima’s reasoning was taken to it’s logical conclusions.  So not only does Zosima’s reasoning seem to undermine the justification for unequal treatment of souls in the afterlife, but it also undermines the Christian conception of free will to boot (which is logically impossible regardless of Zosima’s reasoning).

And this brings me to the concept of moral desert.  In some ways I agree with Zosima, at least in the sense that love (or more specifically compassion) and forgiveness are extremely important in proper moral reasoning. And once one realizes the logical impossibility of libertarian free will, this should only encourage one’s use of love and forgiveness in the sense that people should never be trying to punish a wrongdoer (or hope for their punishment) for the sake of retributive justice or vengeance.  Rather, people should only punish (or hope that one is punished) as much as is necessary to compensate the victim as best as the circumstances allow and (more importantly) to rehabilitate the wrongdoer by reprogramming them through behavioral conditioning.  Anything above and beyond this is excessive, malicious, and immoral.  Similarly, a loving God (if one existed) would never punish anyone in the afterlife beyond what is needed to rehabilitate them (and it would seem that no punishment at all should really be needed if this God had the power to accomplish these feats on immaterial souls using magic), and if this God had no magic to accomplish this, then at the very least, it would still mean that there should never by any eternal punishments, since punishing someone forever (let alone torturing them forever), not only illustrates that there is no goal to rehabilitate the wrongdoer, but also that this God is beyond psychopathic and malevolent.  Again, think of Zosima’s reasoning as it applies here.

Looking back at the story with Smerdyakov, why does the demonic apparition disappear from Ivan right around the time that he learns that Smerdyakov killed himself?  It could be because Ivan thinks that Smerdyakov has gotten what he deserved, and that he’s no longer roaming free (so to speak) after his heinous act of murder.  And it could also be because Ivan seemed sure at that point that he would confess to the murder (or at least motivating Smerdyakov to do it).  But if either of these notions are true, then once again Ivan has betrayed yet another moral disposition of his, that murder is morally wrong.  It may also imply that Ivan, deep down, may in fact believe in an afterlife, and that Smerdyakov will now be judged for his actions.

It no doubt feels good to a lot of people when they see someone that has wronged another, getting punished for their bad deeds.  The feeling of justice and even vengeance can be so emotionally powerful, especially if the wrongdoer took the life of someone that you or someone else loved very much.  It’s a common feeling to want that criminal to suffer, perhaps to rot in jail until they die, perhaps to be tortured, or what-have-you.  And these intuitions illustrate why so many religious beliefs surrounding judgment in the afterlife share many of these common elements.  People invented these religious beliefs (whether unconsciously or not) because it makes them feel better about wrongdoers that may otherwise die without having been judged for their actions.  After all, when is justice going to be served?  It is also a motivating factor for a lot of people to keep their behaviors in check (as per Ivan’s rationale regarding an afterlife requirement in order for good and evil to be meaningful to people).  Even though I don’t think that this particular motivation is necessary (and therefore Ivan’s argument is incorrect) — due to other motivating forces such as the level of fulfillment and personal self-worth in one’s life, gained through living a life of moral virtue, or the lack thereof by those that fail to live virtuously — it is still a motivation that exists with many people and strongly intersects with the concept of moral desert.  Due to its pervasiveness in our intuitions and how we perceive other human beings and its importance in moral theory in general, people should spend a lot more time critically reflecting on this concept.

In the next part of this post series, I’m going to talk about the conflict between faith and doubt, perhaps the most ubiquitous theme found in The Brothers Karamazov, and how it ties all of these other concepts together.

“The Brothers Karamazov” – A Moral & Philosophical Critique (Part II)

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In my last post in this series, concerning Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, I talked about the concept of good and evil and the character Ivan’s personal atheistic perception that they are contingent on God existing (or at least an afterlife of eternal reward or punishment).  While there may even be a decent percentage of atheists that share this view (objective morality being contingent on God’s existence), I briefly explained my own views (being an atheist myself) which differs from Ivan’s in that I am a moral realist and believe that morality is objective independent of any gods or immortal souls existing.  I believe that moral facts exist (and science is the best way to find them), that morality is ultimately grounded on objective facts pertaining to human psychology, biology, sociology, neurology, and other facts about human beings, and thus that good and evil do exist in at least some sense.

In this post, I’m going to talk about Ivan’s influence on his half-brother, Smerdyakov, who ends up confessing to Ivan that he murdered their father Fyodor Pavlovich, as a result of Ivan’s philosophical influence on him.  In particular, Smerdyakov implicates Ivan as at least partially responsible for his own murderous behavior since Ivan successfully convinced him that evil wasn’t possible in a world without a God.  Ivan ends up becoming consumed with guilt, basically suffers a nervous breakdown, and then is incessantly taunted by a demonic apparition.  The hallucinations continue up until the moment Ivan comes to find out, from his very religious brother Alyosha, that Smerdyakov has hung himself.  This scene highlights a number of important topics beyond the moral realism I discussed in the first post, such as moral responsibility, free will, and even moral desert (I’ll discuss this last topic in my next post).

As I mentioned before, beyond the fact that we do not need a god to ground moral values, we also don’t need a god or an afterlife to motivate us to behave morally either.  By cultivating moral virtues such as compassion, honesty, and reasonableness, and analyzing a situation using a rational assessment of as many facts as are currently accessible, we can maximize our personal satisfaction and thus our chances of living a fulfilling life.  Behavioral causal factors that support this goal are “good” and those that detract from it are “evil”.  Aside from these labels though, we actually experience a more or less pleasing life depending on our behaviors and therefore we do have real-time motivations for behaving morally (such as acting in ways that conform to various cultivated virtues).  Aristotle claimed this more than 2000 years ago and moral psychology has been confirming it time and time again.

Since we have evolved as a particular social species with a particular psychology, not only do we have particular behaviors that best accomplish a fulfilling life, but there are also various behavioral conditioning algorithms and punishment/reward systems that are best at modifying our behavior.  And this brings me to Smerdyakov.  By listening to Ivan and ultimately becoming convinced by Ivan’s philosophical arguments, he seems to have been conditioned out of his previous views on moral responsibility.  In particular, he ended up adopting the belief that if God does not exist, then anything is permissible.  Since he also rejected a belief in God, he therefore thought he could do whatever he wanted.

One thing this turn of events highlights is that there are a number of different factors that influence people’s behaviors and that lead to their being reasoned into doing (or not doing) all sorts of things.  As Voltaire once said “Those who can make you believe absurdities can also make you commit atrocities.  And I think what Ivan told Smerdyakov was in fact absurd — although it was a belief that I once held as well not long after becoming an atheist.  For it is quite obviously absurd that anything is permissible without a God existing for at least two types of reasons: pragmatic considerations and moral considerations (with the former overlapping with the latter).  Pragmatic reasons include things like not wanting to be fined, incarcerated, or even executed by a criminal justice system that operates to minimize illegal behaviors.  It includes not wanting to be ostracized from your circle of friends, your social groups, or your community (and risking the loss of beneficial reciprocity, safety nets, etc.).  Moral reasons include everything that detracts from your overall psychological well-being, the very thing that is needed to live a maximally fulfilling life given one’s circumstances.  Behaving in ways that degrade your sense of inner worth, your integrity, self-esteem, and that diminish a good conscience, is going to make you feel miserable compared to behaving in ways that positively impact these fundamental psychological goals.

Furthermore, this part of the story illustrates that we have a moral responsibility not only to ourselves and our own behavior, but also in terms of how we influence the behavior of those around us, based on what we say, how we treat them, and more.  This also reinforces the importance of social contract theory and how it pertains to moral behavior.  If we follow simple behavioral heuristics like the Golden Rule and mutual reciprocity, then we can work together to obtain and secure common social goods such as various rights, equality, environmental sustainability, democratic legislation (ideally based on open moral deliberation), and various social safety nets.  We also can punish those that violate the social contract, as we already do with the criminal justice system and various kinds of social ostracization.  While our system of checks is far from perfect, having some system that serves such a purpose is necessary because not everybody behaves in ways that are ultimately beneficial to themselves nor everyone else around them.  People need to be conditioned to behave in ways that are more conducive to their own well being and that of others, and if all reasonable efforts to achieve that fails, they may simply need to be quarantined through incarceration (for example psychopaths or other violent criminals that society needs to be protected from, and that aren’t responding to rehabilitation efforts).

In any case, we do have a responsibility to others and that means we need to be careful what we say, such as the case with Ivan and his brother.  And this includes how we talk about concepts like free will, moral responsibility, and moral desert (justice).  If we tell people that all of their behaviors are determined and therefore don’t matter, that’s not a good way to get people to behave in ways that are good for them or for others.  Nor is telling them that because a God doesn’t exist, that their actions don’t matter.  In the case of deterministic nihilism, it’s a way to get people to lose much if not all of their motivation to put forward effort in achieving useful goals.  And both deterministic and atheistic moral nihilism are dangerous ideas that can get some people to commit heinous crimes such as mass shootings (or murdering their own father as Smerdyakov did), because they simply cause people to think that all behaviors are on equal footing in any way that matters.  And quite frankly, those nihilistic ideas are not only dangerous but also absurd.

While I’ve written a bit on free will in the past, my views have become more refined over the years, and my overall attitude towards the issue has been co-evolving alongside my views on morality.  The main crux of the free will issue is that libertarian free will is logically impossible because our actions are never free from both determinism and indeterminism (randomness) since one or the other must underlie how our universe operates (depending on which interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is correct).  Neither option from this logical dichotomy gives us “the freedom to have chosen to behave differently given the same initial conditions in a non-random way”.  Therefore free will in this sense is logically impossible.  However, this does not mean that our behavior isn’t operating under some sets of rules and patterns that we can discover and modify.  That is to say, we can effectively reprogram many of our behavioral tendencies using various forms of conditioning through punishment/reward systems.  These are the same systems we use to teach children how to behave and to rehabilitate criminals.

The key thing to note here is that we need to acknowledge that even if we don’t have libertarian free will, we still have a form of “free will” that matters (as philosophers like Daniel Dennett have said numerous times) whereby we have the ability to be programmed and reprogrammed in certain ways, thus allowing us to take responsibility for our actions and design ways to modify future actions as needed.  We have more degrees of freedom than a person who is insane for example, or a child, or a dog, and these degrees of freedom or autonomy — the flexibility we have in our decision-making algorithms — can be used as a rough guideline for determining how “morally responsible” a person is for their actions.  That is to say, the more easily a person can be conditioned out of a particular behavior, and the more rational decision making processes are involved in governing that behavior, the more “free will” this person has in a sense that applies to a criminal justice system and that applies to most of our everyday lives.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether someone thinks that their behavior doesn’t matter because there’s no God, or because they have no libertarian free will.  What needs to be pointed out is the fact that we are able to behave in ways (or be conditioned to behave in ways) that lead to more happiness, more satisfaction and more fulfilling lives.  And we are able to behave in ways that detract from this goal.  So which behaviors should we aim for?  I think the answer is obvious.  And we also need to realize that as a part of our behavioral patterns, we need to realize that ideas have consequences on others and their subsequent behaviors.  So we need to be careful about what ideas we choose to spread and to make sure that they are put into a fuller context.  If a person hasn’t given some critical reflection about the consequences that may ensue from spreading their ideas to others, especially to others that may misunderstand it, then they need to keep those ideas to themselves until they’ve reflected on them more.  And this is something that I’ve discovered and applied for myself as well, as I was once far less careful about this than I am now.  In the next post, I’m going to talk about the concept of moral desert and how it pertains to free will.  This will be relevant to the scene described above regarding Ivan’s demonic apparition that haunts him as a result of his guilt over Smerdyakov’s murder of their father, as well as why the demonic apparition disappeared once Ivan heard that Smerdyakov had taken his own life.