Reconciling Plato and Berdyaev via the Phaedrus

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Analytic philosophy is by the far the dominant tradition in the English-speaking world and many countries in Europe at this point, with a handful of “continental” schools, but in either case, atheism and materialism are taken for granted. The way Plato was taught, like the way my professors taught everything else, sucked the significance out, examined arguments out of context, and generally made Plato seem like a no-good philosopher. It was not until I had written my dissertation and been granted my PhD that I read Plato’s Republic for myself, because it seemed ridiculous not to have read it – like an English major being unfamiliar with Hamlet. It was a revelation and I was overjoyed to find such a congenial mind. Like Dostoevsky, who has been described as continuing the dialogues of Plato, I had found a friend.

While aware that some of my other friendships have ended, the one philosophical friendship I started to suspect would last forever was my love of Plato. However, my fairly recent discovery of Nikolai Berdyaev had me wondering how devoted I could remain to Plato. A Russian friend, hearing me describe one of my philosophical views, noted that it sounded like Berdyaev and recommended him to me. When another friend started taking a strong interest too, my new friendship with Berdyaev began, often feeling like I was entering into a dialogue with my future self, as Berdyaev extended some of my own thoughts into new domains.

The solution to my newly acquired doubts about Plato has been to step outside the description of reality found in Plato’s allegory of the cave, and to look to the Phaedrus, for an extension of the Platonic vision of spiritual and metaphysical realities that is more congenial to Berdyaev’s insights. [1] Continue reading

Can Evolutionary Biology and Naturalism Provide a Foundation for Morality?

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From Tom Stoppard’s play “The Hard Problem”

Naturalism, physicalism, and materialism are synonyms. They are names for a truncated metaphysics that omits any notion of transcendence and divinity. Someone might try to take dualism seriously without God; a dualism that posits material reality, and consciousness as a separate substance with its own substantial reality. But this would mean recognizing that there is something nonphysical and invisible that cannot be explained by science and operates in independence from purely physical forces. In other words, a spiritual reality. Most materialists recognize this and have been leery of even using the word “consciousness.” At the present moment, for some reason, some percentage of analytic philosophers are willing to use David Chalmers’ phrase “the hard problem” to refer to the puzzle of how subjective awareness could arise from the lump of meat in a sentient creature’s head. Positing a giant mystery at the center of human existence is a dangerous game for a materialist. They will find the hard problem to be an indigestible lump that spells the death knell for their physicalist complacency. By accepting that it is a problem at all, they are effectively admitting defeat. If the hard problem were a gift, they would be wise to return to sender. Daniel Dennett puts it thus: “I adopt the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs. It is not that I think I can give a knock-down proof that dualism, in all its forms, is false or incoherent, but that, given the 2way that dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up.”[1] Continue reading

If God’s Plan Is For Us To Determine Our Own Plan, Why Do We Need God? The Bullet-Point Version

Either God, the divine, the supernatural, and the transcendent exist or they do not. If they do not, then what is left is alternatively called “naturalism, physicalism, or materialism.” These are all synonyms and they imply that all that really ultimately exists are atoms and molecules. A naturalistic universe is one that can be fully described by science, at least in principle. If something cannot be measured and quantified, it is not objectively true and should be eliminated from one’s ontology, in this view.

  • Naturalism is irretrievably nihilistic. If naturalism is true, then value does not exist. Value cannot be measured. And neither can beauty, love, or goodness. None of those things can be measured or even clearly defined. Quotation from Anna Karenina, Part 4, Chapter 10:

‘But,’ said Sergey Ivanovitch, smiling subtly, and addressing Karenin, ‘one must allow that to weigh all the advantages and disadvantages of classical and scientific studies is a difficult task, and the question which form of education was to be preferred would not have been so quickly and conclusively decided if there had not been in favour of classical education, as you expressed it just now, its moral—disons le mot—anti-nihilist influence.’

‘Undoubtedly.’

‘If it had not been for the distinctive property of antinihilistic influence on the side of classical studies, we should have considered the subject more, have weighed the arguments on both sides,’ said Sergey Ivanovitch with a subtle smile, ‘we should have given elbow-room to both tendencies. But now we know that these little pills of classical learning possess the medicinal property of anti-nihilism, and we boldly prescribe them to our patients.… But what if they had no such medicinal property?’ he wound up humorously. Continue reading

Evolution 2.0 by Perry Marshall

Evolution 2.0 by Perry Marshall

Materialism and the mechanistic world-view – the idea that the everything is a machine operating in terms of mindless, mechanical forces – has severe nihilistic implications. An alternative to this view is that the universe is alive, and that consciousness permeates it – a view called ‘panpsychism.” When his wife began to think that panpsychism might be true, Sam Harris, a famous anti-religion atheist. initially told her to remain silent about her views in case she lost all street cred. When she asked scientists she knew their own views, it turned out that many of them were also secret believers in panpsychism.

The fact that Annaka Harris and the scientists thought it necessary to lie by omission is troubling. It shows that science, as a human activity, can suffer from the usual human tendencies, one of which is the desire to belong to a group and to reach for social status. Groups define themselves by who they exclude as much as their positive beliefs, and they reward with the maintenance or increase of status and punish by demotion those who dissent. Hence, the creation of orthodoxies.

Another oft-commented upon human tendency is the desire to have something to worship. If religion is abandoned, a religious attitude will usually simply be taken towards something non-religious. Communism was atheistic so the Russians simply worshipped Stalin instead, and the Chinese turned Mao Zedong into a demi-God in their imaginations. I have met an engineer with such reverence for science and his own status as a scientist that he is tremendously conceited about his ability to think about philosophical, or any other, topics beyond the scope of his expertise. He definitely seems to see himself as a priest of science – an idea that Francis Bacon, credited with contributing to “the scientific method” actually championed, including the idea that scientists should wear special robes to distinguish themselves from hoi polloi. Continue reading

Does the Concept of Metaphysical Freedom Make Sense?

Does the Concept of Metaphysical Freedom Make Sense?

1“Michael” writes: “Freedom and determinism are empty categories; they cannot be employed to distinguish any sequence of events from any other.”

Logically, this could be because all events are free or because all events are determined. It seems likely that the writer thinks all events are causally determined.

Presumably by “events” the writer includes “actions.” However, without the concept of freedom there are no actions per se. Actions are performed by an actor, an agent who is a center of decision-making. In determinism, there are no agents. There is only a series of “sequences of events” – a constant stream beginning when time began and ending when the physical universe ceases to exist. Each event is the result of a prior event in mechanical fashion, and each event will cause some future event. Continue reading

Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Causation is Stochastic

It would seem that freedom and causation are incompatible. If acts are wholly caused – as they must be, if they are to be intelligible, and so more or less intelligent, and so integrated fully in a coherent world – then how can they be free? If acts are even a little bit free, are they not to that extent chaotic, ergo unintelligible, and so an insuperable impediment to the integration of a coherent world?

There is in fact no such incompatibility.

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Nicolas Berdyaev: The Person, Freedom, and Inequality

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Nicolas Berdyaev (Right) with Friends (ca. 1930)

In the view of the Russian religious thinker and philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), freedom arises from no causality whatever – for if freedom arose from causality, it would operate under determination, in which case it would be shackled, not free.  Freedom belongs to spirit, which is to say that it belongs to the person; and the person, bearing within himself the image of God, exercises his freedom positively by the Imitatio Dei of willing the good in the two closely linked modes of love and creativity.  Through love and creativity, moreover, people differentiate themselves from one another.  Some people distinguish themselves as more capable of love than others; these people – some of whom number among the saints – reap in higher degree than others both the delights of love and the tragic pathos that attends love in the mortal realm.  Likewise some people distinguish themselves as more creative than others, whether in the arts or in business or in scientific endeavor; or, simply, in the ability to socialize and to form friendships and initiate sodalities spontaneously.  Those who can create at a high level, like those who can love prodigiously, form a justified, if not an acknowledged, aristocracy, and while indeed they enjoy satisfaction in their creativity, they also experience its annoyances, not least of which is to fall under the resentment of lesser talents of invidious proclivity who cannot measure up to, much less surpass, the standards that emerge from the self-working-out of genius.  Because freedom emerges from no causality whatever, it partakes in mystery.  To treat freedom as a concept rather than living it, to find an explanation of it, would be to reduce freedom to a mere natural phenomenon and thereby fully to ensconce it in the domain of causality.  According to Berdyaev, freedom springs forth from the same Ungrund, or endlessly self-replenishing abyss, as the boundless will-to-goodness of God; and it springs forth as the Will and the Gift of God.

As freedom partakes in mystery, it entwines itself with faith.  As freedom produces inequality, it entwines itself with politics.  In freedom, then, faith and politics find themselves in conflict.  Faith on the one hand corresponds to a spiritual condition, which struggles ever to remove itself from the trammels of the fallen world so as to seek the good, and to create it, freely, beyond causality.  Politics, on the other hand, corresponds to an adaptation in respect of that selfsame fallenness.  In politics, men experience the temptation to exercise freedom minimally by yielding freedom to an objective – or as Berdyaev would put it, an objectivized – authority or totality.  Politics, as the present moment so clearly demonstrates, always tends towards an authoritarian totality.  Because politics adapts itself to humanity’s fallen condition, it necessarily adapts itself to envy and resentment, which it attempts to placate.  The only way, however, to placate envy and resentment is to limit the scope of genius – and that means to limit the scope of love and creativity in the realm of freedom.  Politics thus always declines, not only towards an authoritarian totality, but at the same time towards a leveling, egalitarian totality; politics as an authoritarian-egalitarian totality positions itself as essentially anti-person and anti-freedom.  This tendency in politics is magnified by the incomprehensibility to the faithless of the paradox that evil must share the same prerogative as good because otherwise freedom would annihilate itself.  The faithless believe that through the imposition of the authoritarian-egalitarian totality they can prevent evil.  Berdyaev recurred to these themes and propositions throughout his authorship.  His early Philosophy of Inequality (1923) treats of them; so do his middle-period Spirit and Reality (1939) and his late-period Slavery and Freedom (1944).

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What Cannot But Be Carried Into Practice Must Perforce Be Veridical

A proposition that can’t be acted upon must be false, or even meaningless. So its contradiction must be true. Thus you can’t think that you can’t think, e.g.; so you can think, period full stop.

The corollary is that if you cannot avoid acting as if a proposition is true, then it must be true. You must at every moment act, willy nilly; so it is true that you can act. Your agency is real. There is literally no way around this operational presupposition. There is no way for us to be, except by an implicit presupposition of its truth. And the only way for us not to be – namely, suicide – is a way that, again, implicitly presupposes its truth. You can’t kill yourself if you can’t act. You can kill yourself. So you can act. QED.

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What Cannot Be Carried Into Practice Cannot Be Veridical

You can’t act as if you can’t act, for example. So, it is not true that you can’t act. Likewise, you can’t think that you can’t think; can’t be aware that you can’t be aware; can’t mean that there is no meaning; can’t yourself suffer the illusion that your self is an illusion; and so forth.

This is the practical aspect of the fundamental epistemological criterion of truth, which is adequacy to quotidian experience.

Extending this notion a bit further: you can’t say that there is no such thing as metaphysical truth other than by asserting a putative metaphysical truth. Ditto for moral truths, and aesthetic truths: you can’t say that morals or aesthetics are relative except by asserting a moral or aesthetic absolute. Indeed, this holds for any sort of truth. You can’t say there is no political truth other than by asserting a putative political truth, for example.

Nominalism and positivism both fall before this scythe. Nominalism can be asserted only by means of the very universals it reprehends. Positivism itself is among the propositional systems that cannot be logically or empirically demonstrated, and insists are therefore meaningless; so that its assertion is its contradiction.

Also, of course, you can’t for very long successfully live as if an important falsehood were true. We’ve all proved this for ourselves a million times.

Thus the very rejection of God is an implicit recognition of him. You can’t rebel against a nonexistent Lord.

What It Is Like To Be a Secondary Cause

As the First Cause of everything, God is the primary cause of everything. Creaturely agents are secondary causes. They have effects of their own, arising from endogenous factors, and not only from God. Where in our inner phenomenal life does the influence of the divine primary cause leave off, and our own work as agents and secondary causes – co-creators with God, or as Tolkien called us, sub-creators – begin?

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