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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.

 

Christian or Humanist? — Yes!

In False Dichotomies - the lines between, Rants on May 13, 2014 at 4:45 am

Science versus HumanitiesLast week, I stuck a link on Facebook to a short blog post I wrote for Abbotsford Christian Schools blog, InsideOut called,” My Coffee Cup and Genesis 1.” I received some heat for this post; I was called “yet another science bashing Christian.”

This appellation, I believe, is misapplied.

Although it’s difficult, if not impossible, so separate out my “Christianness” from anything I do or say, I think that it might be just as appropriate to call me “yet another humanist insisting that science has limits,” (humanist in the sense that I think like a humanities person).

What science does, it does well, but it’s not very useful for what it doesn’t do. This idea ought not offend anyone, unless they believe that science can do everything. Many scientists and nearly all philosophers would have no problem with the limitations I suggest. Science looks at the material world, it cannot tell us about everything, unless everything is material. There are some, many of them scientists, who suggest this is the case.

But as soon as anyone suggests this, they are no longer in the realm of science, but of philosophy. Scientism, philosophic materialism are among the names for this philosophy. Once in the realm of philosophy one must play by the rules of philosophy.

Philosophy is one of the humanities–there’s a lot of critical thinking in philosophy. Like science, it seeks objective knowledge, but it is not limited to the physical reality–one of the branches of philosophy is metaphysics. Other branches include logic, epistemology and ethics. Although philosophical materialism can be argued, it’s not easy because there are pretty good arguments from each of these philosophical disciplines that challenge the fundamental tenets of Scientism.

History is another of the humanities. History helps contextualize the current age with those that have gone before. Without history we might think that, just because we are progressing technologically, we are progressing in other ways as well. One well supported reading of history suggests that humanity is not, essentially, progressing as Scientism often assumes.

Literature, my favourite branch of the humanities, explores ideas with imagination–it asks, “What if?”  From Frankenstein to The Wise Man’s Fear literature warns of science stepping beyond its natural limitations.

Humanities and science complement each other. We are all the weaker without both being strong.  One of the many tasks that those of us in the humanities have is to maintain this complementary relationship.  My Facebook critic is not alone in thinking that arguments promoting the humanities are a defense of a bronze-age mentality.

I believe that science (mathematics, physics, biology), philosophy, history and literature–freed, within their natural boundaries, to do what they each do best–will lead to the truth. As a Christian, I believe this Truth to be Jesus Christ.

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.