Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Living Off The Borrowed Capital of Others

I am always amazed when materialists/atheists/philosophical naturalists spend hours, books, essays, and talks regaling us with their reductions of everything in life to the material, to atoms, and matter in motion, only to then turn around at some point and tell us out of the other sides of their mouths that they still are able to find a place in life for “spirituality,” “imagination,” the “inner life,” and so on.

What they forget to tell us however is that their world-view has no place for such notions. Clearly these areas of life exist and are a part of our reality, so the naturalist must deal with them and talk about them, and yet he has to borrow the vocabulary and concepts to do so. If this universe is nothing more than an accident, if we are accidents, if there is no purpose or meaning to life, if we are simply matter in motion, if free-will and our minds are illusions- nothing more than something like the secretion of an ethereal bile, then talk of meaning, spirituality, imagination, the inner life, and the enchantment of art and beauty is nonsensical and completely without any logical basis whatsoever.

And yet they must live in this world, in their bodies/minds, among a majority of people world-wide who now and throughout the centuries believe there is more to this world than the physical. Their minority opinion, plus the fact of their own lives and minds (existence)—these twin empirical proofs arrayed against their own ideology—compels them to make room somewhere in their world-view for spirituality or enchantment. In other words, regardless what they say they believe, they must live as if their world-view is not true in the areas any serious and sensitive person would contend are the most important: The good, the beautiful, and the true—or what would encompass the spiritual or enchanted. It is another reason they turn science into scientism, which really operates as a religion.

What makes us human and differentiates us from slugs is that we know life is more than eating, drinking, reproducing, and then death. What makes life the wonder it is are all the things we know the least about and understand even less in any materialistic way: Spirituality, enchantment, sacrificial love, forgiveness, gift-giving, music, art, poetry, literature, beauty, peace, God, transcendence, memory, consciousness, our silent deep emotional reactions to sunsets, sunrises, Yosemite, babies, a hug, and so much more. The moment we begin to speak of these areas in terms of utility, evolution, or as simply the result of neurons sending signals to nerves, then muscle, how can but the most obtuse and dull-spirited not see that the whole point, the whole sense, the true significance of these things, has now been lost and missed?

All the terminology and concepts related to spirituality and enchantment arise from people articulating over the centuries their sense of these things from an awareness of transcendence encapsulated in the stories they tell. From events, experiences, relationships, and what is described as providence, narratives arise compelling enough to become larger than an individual or group, large enough to create as it were cultures, indeed, civilizations. In the West, this is exactly what Christianity did.

The materialist however must borrow the imagery, the language, and the concepts invested by those events, experiences, and relationships because his world-view could never produce such concepts or language to begin with; and, of course how could they since part of his narrative is a reaction against that very language and those concepts. Imagine the poverty of a world-view that has no place for, or way to speak about out of its own narrative, what for even the holders of that view would qualify as the most important areas of life: The good, the true, and the beautiful.

So the materialist/atheist/philosophical naturalist like the spoiled child of several generations of millionaires must live off the borrowed capital he never produced but simply inherited from those who actually toiled and had the narrative resources to produce it in the first place.

When thinking of their plight I believe David B. Hart put it best:

“Though we may not all have concepts available to us to understand it, all of us experience from time to time that kind of wonder that for Plato and Aristotle is the beginning of all philosophy, that sudden immediate knowledge that existence is something in excess of everything that is, something not intrinsic to it, something strange in its familiarity and transcendent in its immanence. This is an awareness so obvious that there may never be a theoretical language sufficiently limpid and innocent to express it properly, but in it is a wisdom basic to all reflective thought. To fail to see it requires either an irredeemably brutish mind or a willful obtuseness of the sort that only years of education can induce. And this, I venture to say, is why atheism cannot win out in the end: it requires a moral and intellectual coarseness—a blindness to the obvious—too immense for the majority of mankind.”


Burk Braun said...

Yet another post on the road to dehumanizing atheists. Fine work indeed! Let's start with the weird idea that feelings/cognitive events like spirituality and imagination are not encompassed by a reality-based world view. What do spiritual feelings have to do with one's theology? Frankly, very little. As William James said, there is nothing logical about it, even as there definitely is something psychological about it. What we feel is up to us to interpret, whether it is love for a snail, or awe before the void. Thanking an imaginary friend is one route, but there are far better and truer ones.

The idea that understanding the causal closure of the world and other physical principles makes it somehow impossible to appreciate beauty and art is likewise absurd. It is like saying that the physicist can not enjoy music because she understands sound waves, the chemist can not enjoy wine, or the physiologist can not enjoy sex, etc.. They not only experience just as keenly, but they also understand, with a far more exacting vocabulary than those who profess the pleasure to come from putti in the vicinity.

That is a great link you offer, but the point of science is not to create a new form of worship, but to find and record truths about our world and existence. We would certainly all be better off if we did not worship phantasms and believe our meaning was granted by a psychotic god, but instead found meaning a bit closer to home. I agree that attempts to fetishize science into religious status are bad for both, just as mixing state and religion is bad for both. But what is one to do with so many people desperate to worship something, or at least to show a bit of emotional appreciation and reverence? Should their appreciation be directed to something true, or untrue? The link writer seems to blithely assume that the untrue and fantastical is OK, because it "cares". But such caring is manifestly absent in the world, and as I recall, Weinberg's existential philosophy about the matter has some rather artistic antecedents: "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more".

Darrell said...

Burk, on the contrary, I would suggest it is the very reductionist materialistic philosophy espoused by atheists that dehumanizes. We are more than bags of bones and neurons. What dehumanizes is believing that our lives are nothing more than “walking shadows” who are ultimately “heard no more.” Part of what I am noting in my post is that in spite of such a dehumanizing philosophy, we know the naturalist cannot be consistent, because of his very humanness, because of the very fact he indeed can recognize and be moved by the “spiritual” and the “enchanting.” Reality bucks up against the false view that the material is all there is and thus the need to speak of spirituality and enchantment on the part of the atheist. Further, I did not write that the atheist cannot appreciate beauty, art, or spirituality and enchantment. I wrote that they have to borrow the concepts and language of another world-view do to so because it would never arise from their own. Finally, I did not write to the effect that because one, like the physicist, understands sound waves he cannot appreciate music. What I wrote was to point out that music (or whatever artistic area one cares to note), its effect upon us, its beauty, its arising from creative genius, the stories and moods conveyed by it, cannot simply be reduced to sound waves and to do so is to miss the whole point of music in the first place.

Burk Braun said...

The atheist and materialist has no problem with the occurrence of human imagination. We can avail ourselves of any number of vocabularies that express that imagination, from Greek myths to Alice in Wonderland. Does that make any of these creations true? No, it does not. These vocabularies and feelings point to, as you say, the moods and stories of mankind. Reality is exactly what they do not point to. Our persistent desire to transcend the human condition does not create its fulfillment, however acutely that desire is expressed. The simple fact is that animism, astrology, myth, science fiction, and religion generally, including Christianity, all point to unreal worlds that are projections of our mental lives, not descriptions of external reality. Our human-ness is indeed expressed in these ways, but the meaning is a metaphorical, literary reflection of our own nature, not some kind of scientific description of actual relationships with actual deities. That is why the same impulse can be expressed equally well in so many idioms, and why the ancient formulations/myths remain so fresh today, as long as one does not take them literally.

Darrell said...

Burk,thanks as always for your thoughts. I would simply point out that we weren’t really speaking of whether or not spiritually and enchantment were pointers to or indicative of, as you put it, “true creations,” which is another topic. Your question-begging assertions to that topic aside (for instance, some of the “stories of mankind” may be true), I was simply pointing out that, as you seem to agree, the materialist must “avail” himself of other vocabularies and concepts to speak of those areas because they do not arise from his own world-view. And as you also seem to agree, when you are speaking of these areas, you do not really believe they stand for anything or ultimately mean anything outside one’s own mind. They are the internal ramblings of neurons firing, signifying nothing, with no meaning or purpose to speak of. So, our deepest longings for transcendence, for you, will never “create” their fulfillment. Mysteriously, we have longings for another world that (in your mind) doesn’t exist. And yet, there they are. You have no problem with the “occurrence” of imagination; you simply don’t think it means anything (or don’t want it to mean anything) or be taken “literally.” Interesting. In other words, for you, your deepest held thoughts and beliefs about the true, the good, and the beautiful, as you try and “imagine” their significance, are finally and entirely without any meaning or bearing to the “real” world. They point to…nothing. So, it would appear you are making the same point I was in my post. The question still remains then as to why the materialist feels the need to invoke words and concepts like “spiritually” “enchantment” or similar terms and concepts when he thinks of them as anomalies, something like the ghost image on the radar screen or “reality.” He wants to debunk any significance to these areas and yet he cannot live without them. Interesting.

Burk Braun said...

I have to ask whether you have problems with the English language. First I say that imagination and its products powerfully informative/expressive of human motivations and dreams, then you say that I regard imagination as meaningless. I guess you are simply trapped in your conviction that meaning must come from outside, rather than being created by humans. Where is the dividing line between human-created meaning and external-created meaning? In sports, do we make our own meaningful experiences, creating teams, engaging competitive emotions, and staging contests? Or is this too of divine significance? In the end, there is no meaning that humans experience that we have not made for ourselves. If understanding this concept robs you of your Santa Claus, then go right on believing ...