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The Modern Malaise

In Worldview on April 3, 2016 at 1:35 am

ImmanenceDo you ever feel that life is a little flat?

If you do, you are not alone according to Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor.  He calls it “the modern malaise.” Taylor says that the experience of living in a secular age is one of “flatness.”   This feeling comes about because of a new view of reality which affects how we experience reality. The view goes by various names–Naturalism, Physicalism, Philosophical Materialism, or Exclusive Humanism.  It is the belief that there is nothing over and above the physical.  There is no spiritual dimension to reality.

“Nature has no doors, and no reality outside herself for doors to open on” (C. S. Lewis, Miracles).

This loss of the transcendent results in a malaise. Without God, the world lost the enchantment it derived from his presence; meaning is more difficult to come by; it’s not so easy to anchor truth to anything absolute, the same goes for the good and the beautiful.

In the absence of a transcendent source of meaning, where do we look for it?

The Romantics looked for it in Nature and the Modern thinkers in Reason.  In the postmodern context, these have become inadequate.  In our current context, we look for meaning within the individual mind, says Taylor.

Well, that’s cool!

Is it? Any meaning to be found in the universe is to be found in my head. I get to decide if a thing is good or true or beautiful. I don’t know; I feel inadequate to the task.

“I told you once you’d made a God of yourself, and the insufficiency of it forced you to become an atheist.” –Robertson Davies

Without the higher things, our experience of reality is flattened. Hence, the malaise of modernity.

The symptoms for the modern malaise:

  • We ask, “Does anything have meaning?”
  • We seek “an over-arching significance” in life.
  • We tend to commemorate important life events, but feel as if these efforts were all for naught.
  • We have a sense of the “utter flatness, emptiness of the ordinary.”

People are obscenities. . . . A mass of tubes squeezing semisolids around itself for a few decades before becoming so dribblesome it’ll no longer function.” — Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

So how do we bring some fullness into our experience to counter the flatness?

  • Family
  • Membership
  • Sports
  • Toys
  • Vacations
  • Parties
  • Halloween
  • Etc.

These can sometimes mask the symptoms, but fail to cure the real illness.

I prescribe the following:

  1. A broader conception of time.
  2. The recovery of objective reality.
  3. The re-enchantment of the cosmos.
  4. Recovery of the transcendent.

I’ve covered the first in previous posts, the first of which is here.

The other three will be addressed in the posts which follow.

 

Why I Am Not a Liberal

In False Dichotomies - the lines between, Why I am not a "Liberal" or "Conservative" on January 25, 2014 at 9:33 pm

Liberal or ConservativeThe main reason I am not a liberal is because liberalism leans toward naturalism.  This is not to say that one who identifies with liberalism always rejects a supernatural explanation for anything, but the idea of freedom is so fundamental in liberalism that it often means freedom from most external authority, and this almost always includes the authority of tradition and religion, and often the authority of a transcendent (supernatural) God.

If there is a rejection of all things transcendent, the naturalist liberal will have some difficulty finding an ultimate purpose to life.

This is not to say that they find no purpose to life.  Life can have lots of purpose and meaning within naturalism:  Enjoying family and friends (and our animal companions), sports and recreation, the arts and culture, seeking beauty and working hard to make the world a better place.

Purpose, is not the same as ultimate purpose.  Many naturalists will accept that their philosophy does not offer an ultimate purpose or meaning to life.

Having no ultimate purpose does not mean living in profound despair.  Some live with a defiant courage in the face of oblivion.  Others embrace humanity’s natural desire for meaning as a bit of a cosmic joke and just delight in the irony of it all.  Many focus on the process and not how it’s all going to end; the process can be a lot of fun.  Making cookies with a friend can be very meaningful without the final reward of eating the finished product.  For the honest naturalist, these and other approaches are preferable to believing in a supernatural source of meaning.

The least acceptable philosophically, but probably the most common way of avoiding existential despair is to borrow meaning from our Christian heritage.  Like the neighbour who borrows our leaf blower then stores it in his garage so long he thinks its his.

These “liberal” ideals borrowed from Christianity can include:

  • Attending to the needs of the sick and the poor,
  • Taking care of the environment,
  • Being hospitable to people who are different than we are,
  • Fighting for justice for the oppressed,
  • And freedom for the enslaved,
  • Recognizing dignity and of all human beings.

There really is no philosophical foundation for these ideals in naturalism.  This critique of liberalism is not just mine, actually, it’s Nietzsche’s–so if you really disagree with what I am saying, you might want to take it up with him.

One might ask, “If these are Christian ideals, why does it seem like so many Christians oppose them?”

Good question.

I suggest there are a couple of things going on here.

For one thing, it “seems” as if Christians oppose Christian ideals, but in actuality lots of Christians and Christian organizations work very hard in all these areas.  These things don’t receive as much attention as the those, who work contrary to these Biblical ideals, especially if they are religious.

But unfortunately it is not just a misconception.  Some Christians are obviously working against what I have called Christian ideals.  But, just as there are many naturalists do not live lives consistent with a naturalist worldview, there are many Christians who do not live lives consistent with Christian ideals.

In the first instance I would call it common sense, in the second, sin.

Conequences of Naturalism

In Books, Movies and Television on January 16, 2014 at 4:36 am

HBO-True-DetectiveHBO’s new drama, True Detective aired this past weekend.   There’s a great bit of dialogue between principals, two Louisiana CID detectives, while they drive through a rundown Louisiana neighbourhood.  Reacting to the setting, Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson)mutters, “There’s all kinds of ghettos in the world.”    (View video. Warning: there is some strong language)

His partner, Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) replies, “All one ghetto, Man. . . . giant gutter in outer space.”  When pressed, he explains his philosophical perspective:

I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution.  We became too self-aware.  Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself.  We are creatures that should not exist by natural law. . . .  We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self.  A secretion of sensory experience and feeling programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody.  When in fact, everybody is nobody. . . . I think the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming–stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction one last midnight, brothers and sisters, opting out of a raw deal.

Cohle describes this worldview as philosophical pessimism.   It starts with naturalism, the belief that all is material and material is all there is.  According to naturalism, there is no God, nor anything one could call spirit.  There are also no transcendent ideals like, The Good, The True and The Beautiful.  If you carry it a little further, there is not natural basis for identity, purpose or meaning.

Denial of God, need not be as bleak as this–one can still believe in friends and family.  One can still enjoy art and believe in power of reason.  And fight for freedom and equality, and against poverty and oppression.  But I think Cohle would say they are avoiding the logical consequences of their naturalism.

Cohle does not smuggle Christian conceptions of human dignity and equality into his view of humanity, nor does he wrap his view of life in the warm blanket of meaning and purpose.  He accepts that without the transcendent–I would be a little more specific, without the living God–life is a tragic accident, it has no purpose or meaning and identity is an illusion.

I look forward to how this philosophy runs up against Hart’s very nominal Christianity as they investigate the actions of a serial killer.