Summer Reading Group: “Naturalism and Nihilism”

I am not concerned with whether or not religions is justified as a necessary prop for morality. I am frustrated when it is thought that it is only that, and therefore when morality can find justification elsewhere religion is irrelevant. The reduction of religion to morality is, I think, a distortion of religion. It would seem to me that arguing for the view from somewhere, or that the ‘more’ suggested by experience is necessary for morality is a philosophical way of reducing or equating religion and morality. As a way to give concrete expression to one’s faith, religion is much more than just morality, I would think.

Hello there Ron, what a wonderful argument on materialism and mind/morality. I am actually wanting to ask, is it possible to do any evangelism in the campus in Sudan? I and about 5 others are traveling to Uganda about this time next year to have a revival/evangelistic effort in the camps in Uganda and would like to do work in Sudan as well. I s that possible?
Who would I contact there to help arrange these events?

Thanks so much Darrel Lindensmith

Robert Bellah’s analysis of religion (from a sociological) perspective might be helpful here and support your misgivings. He argues that religions incorporate elements of ritual, narrative, and explanation to provide its adherents a senses of identity, meaning, and understanding, binding a community together. I’m not sure where morality falls into this. This to say, that religion may provide people with a common ethic, but it does much more.

Related is the renewed interest some sociologists/philosophers of religion have in “the Axial Age,” where certain religions seem to have taken a moral turn to the universal, claiming some sort of higher perspective/authority than a given community’s leaders, and a scope that transcends the particular community, i.e. Judaism (including eventually Christianity and Islam) , Buddhism, Platonism, etc. A universal ethical perspective seems to be a central feature of these religions.

Ron has answered in part the reasons for my suggestion that he is at work offering a view from everywhere. The reported death of metaphysics is as the cliche goes exaggerated. A very sophisticated understanding of that philosophical endeavor is that metaphysics is the project of discovering statements of “unrestricted generality.” An example of such statements might be “things change.” Many people have noted that the contention that metaphysics is impossible is itself an attempt to make a statement of unrestricted generality, i.e. it is a metaphysical claim. As such it is subject to assessment on the basis of its coherence with other things the speaker might wish to affirm, its fecundity in understanding experience, its awareness of other accounts of experience, etc.

It is true that Ron is promoting a specific anthropology arising out of interpretation of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. But the claim that this Palestinian Jew is the face of Ultimate Reality is a particular claim of universal significance. It is certainly possible to deny the truth of the claim. But it is self deceptive to imagine that dismissing that claim (as the parochial and arbitrary interpretation of events that can be accurately interpreted in ways that deny its universality) is not itself a claim that it is universally true that the events have no universal significance. The position that Ron is in general holding up for criticism is the position that no statement of universal human rights is possible.

Some philosophers engaged in metaphysical reflection have contended that every particular fact is a manifestation of what is true of all facts. Particularity then cannot be set in opposition to generality. So for example, back in the day when philosophers were rejecting metaphysical statements as incapable of verification, sophisticated metaphysicians replied that every fact verifies true metaphysical statements should any such statements be successfully formulated. I think those philosophers were not often sensitive enough to the possibility of very easy falsification of their attempts by appeal to facts that did not exhibit the features they claimed were unrestricted in generality. But I’ve always thought that “things change” is a pretty good candidate for a true metaphyscial statement.

And if none of this seems to make sense to you, I would just share my conviction that it makes no sense to me at all for someone to assert that there is a historical vantage point from which it is moral to attempt to murder Malala Yousafzai.

I am in full agreement with you that reducing religion to the metaphysical basis of morality is an impoverishment of religion. But I’m not quite convinced that pointing out the necessity of religious understanding for an optimal grasp of morality is “reducing or equating religion and morality.” Isn’t there a priority granted to religion over morality by someone making Ron’s case, namely that morality cannot be coherently conceived without delineating the dependence of morality on something transcendent of nature?

For me the feature of religion that is definitive is not its acknowledment of transcendence but rather its worship and its conviction that because there is one worthy of worship (which must logically be transcendent, incidentally) there is hope that all of reality will sometime somehow be brought into perfect harmony with the one worthy of worship. Religion then is only secondarily related to virtue but is primarily concerned with the reconciliation of all to God–to echo Paul.

I can dimly see how a metaphysics of being might get us to morality. But it might also leave us with a tragic sense of life. It is not clear how it would get me to the possibility of worship and hope. But to be clear about Ron’s project, by promoting the treatment of Jesus of Nazareth as the face of ultimate reality he has engaged religion in a way that promises just the reconciliation that I believe is required for anything properly called religion.

Daryl, there is no epistemological route to take us to morality without presupposing a mind free to think and deliberate. Under materialism there is no such free mind. Determinism negates any morality in that free choice does not exists, and we have no way of knowing what’s there or not there ethically or otherwise.

I thank both Zane and Daryll for their help in the exploration of the issue I presented.

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I must admit that I have not read Osborn’s book yet, but I’m looking forward to receiving it from Amazon in a few days. That said, I have some comments on the implications of how Osborn formulates his key question in his book.

The way I understand him is that to salvage a sustainable foundation for ethical imperatives, we must either take rescue in metaphysical theologies (Judeo-Christian tradition) or end up in the nihilism of naturalism (Nietzsche). Given Osborn’s position of a preferred religious perspective, the implication is that naturalism with its inherent nihilism is a dead end that morality should be redeemed from, as I understand him.

What I have a problem with is Osborn’s apparent negative perception of the concept of nihilism (I might however be mistaken). What is important to remember is that Nietzsche’s nihilism was a critique of the Kantian distinction between the apparent and the real (the thing itself); the phenomenal and the noumenal (existing independent of perception). Nietzsche argued that Kant claims “that under the reality in which we live and exist, there lies hidden a second and completely different reality, and that this surface reality is therefore an appearance.” Hence, for Kant to know this second and different reality is an impossibility (this was also a critique that Hegel raised against Kant’s “thing itself”, before Nietzsche). Thus, this nihilsm (of Kant) reveals the “gigantic horrors which overcomes the human being who has lost his footing amidst the cognitive forms of the phenomenal world…”, Nietzsche argued. For Nietzsche, it was Kant - the “great Chinaman of Köningsberg” - that prepared the way for nihilism; this “yawning nothing”, and as such, Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is dead” must be understood as a critique of Kant’s ‘Copernican revolution’ in philosophy, which infected modernity, and not as an atheistic statement.

For many contemporary philosophers and theologians, Nietzsche’s “death of God” is valued as a fruitful vantagepoint for constructive critiques of both philosophical and theological traditions. For John D. Caputo, it clears the way for a revivification of “an ancient and venerable tradition, the ongoing work of the critique of idols” – effecting a purgation of the name of God, deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition. Thomas J. J. Altizer interprets it as a negative metaphysics; a transformation of God, “so final and irrevocable that every vestige of unconditionality perishes”. Mark C. Taylor rejects the ‘both/and’ of monism and the ‘either/or’ of dualism, and seeks and adaptive ‘neither-nor-faith’ that is open to complexity and pluralism. Gianni Vattimo, preferring ‘Christianity’ rather than ‘God’ has a focus on the core value of “charity”. As Lissa McCullough argues, all these Nietzschean inspired thinkers, despite their slightly discrepant emphasis, collectively testifies to “a new phase of cultural-spiritual development that is emancipated from a past God’s fateful metaphysical-moral grasp.”

These apologist for the “death of God”, as Lissa McCullough argues, might just be “waiting for the Messiah who never comes, or loving one’s neighbour in the void as the only alternative to the bad faith of arbitrarily declared absolutes.” Despite that, they are all passionate in their endeavours to transfigure religion as a positive resource in answering some of the most acute challenges contemporary societies are faced with, both as individuals and as a community. However, a key question remains, she asks: _

"Whither is ‘God’ straying ‘after God’?"

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Ole, great to hear you’ll be reading along with us. Your comment raises a couple interesting points/questions about Ron’s overall argument. First is the use of the word “nihilism”, which Ron takes to be the inability to affirm “non-arbitrary normative values or goods” (9). I’m not sure if this is the inevitable result of naturalism, as I’ve suggested in a previous comment, although I agree that Christian theism expands the scope of what we value “naturally”, quite a bit, to include humanity. Your reference to Nietzsche is interesting because he applies the term nihilism to Platonism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Kantianism, which he thinks results in the denial of earthly value and normal life for an otherworldly asceticism/escapism. I take Ron to be arguing (correctly) that the teachings of Christianity (“incarnational humanism”) actually suggests the opposite.

Regarding your comments about “the death of God”, i.e. the death of human constructs about God, being a good thing, I’m wondering with you to what extent Ron’s argument in this book might be considered ‘onto-theological,’ i.e. the resurrection of a moral ‘God’ in the service of humanistic ideals. (I think this is Mike’s concern.) I think Ron’s is sufficiently apophatic in his qualifications, i.e. God transcends our thoughts or words we have to think or talk about God, but he does seem to be resurrecting some classical arguments used by theists to argue for God’s existence, i.e. possibility/necessity and goodness, arguments I think Nietzsche/Heidegger might take to be prime examples of onto-theology.

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Thanks for your response and link to Hart, Ron. It seems we can distinguish between (at least) three levels of “goodness.”

  1. humanism (affirmation of human dignity, rights, equality/ robust normative values)
  2. mundane “natural” goodness (affirmation of “the Little Way” of “drinks and kisses” as you put it, which may perhaps include more than hedonism, i.e. some normative values?)
  3. nihilism (no normative values)

So, if humans can have basic sense of the good apart from Christianity, i.e. #2, would this include the naturalist? If so, you would have a naturalist who is not a nihilist, right, so the former does not entail the latter?

Zane and Ole, thanks for the helpful comments. In an early version of my manuscript I included a footnote pointing out that the word “nihilism” may in fact have first been coined by Friedrich Jacobi as a critique of Kant’s hyper rationalism. For reasons I don’t now recall I left that footnote out of the final version of the book (and also D. Hart’s rather hilarious description of Kant as “perhaps the single most boring man ever to darken a wigmaker’s doorway”). Here, in any case, is what I say in the book by way of definition of the contested and admittedly problematic term “nihilism” (note, Zane, that the “little way” is not for Percy a way of “natural goodness” but rather a mode of despair):

Nihilism is not only manifest in radically Nietzschean fashion as a denial of the categories of good and evil (Germans in black trench coats as in the film The Big Lebowski). It can also take the form of more banal modes of disenchantment (recall Binx Bolling in Walker Percy’s novel, The Moviegoer, whose longing for meaning leads him to a purely “horizontal search”—“the Little Way” of “drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh”—but who is haunted all the while by a nagging sense that something is missing and “that everyone is dead”). In the academy, nihilism shows itself in a colonizing stance toward the mystery of being, a flattening of all of reality into a realm of “objective” facts completely open to instrumental (or intellectual) mastery and control.

Zane, you will find a lengthy discussion of “onto-theology” in the final chapter of my book that draws heavily on the work of your mentor Merold Westphal :slight_smile:

Thanks Zane! It’s a great learning and community experience to participate in this reading. To be fair to Ron, I must read his book, which I haven’t yet. But instinctively I sense of a weak version of Heidegger’s onto-theology, but I also have a feeling (hope) that I might be mistaken (ref. Ron’s comment below). Further, I think we must differentiate between the “teachings of Christianity”, which is a mixed bag of historical forms of beliefs and praxis - some ‘incarnational’ and others ‘onto-theological’.

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I have read some of your published essays, and I have been looking forward to your recent book. Hopefully Amazon will deliver it in a few days.

Ole, I’m somewhat confused by your reference to “Heidegger’s onto-theology” since Heidegger was the one who coined the term “onto-theology” as a critique of thinkers like Hegel, Kant, and Aristotle (who he saw as attempting to pin down the mystery of Being in totalizing, rationalistic systems).

Ron, I did use the term “Heidegger’s onto-theology”, in the sense that I had a feeling, which is probably mistaken, based on Daryll’s article, that your ethical framework is rooted in an abstract metaphysical construction.

I hope you will be pleasantly surprised when you have a chance to read the book!

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Ron, I suppose you are talking about ethics. Would you be willing to explain what the differences are between a Kantian and a Dostoevskian notion of morality, as you see it?

Ole, forgive me for keeping you in suspence but I have a lengthy section on Dostoevsky in chapter 3 of the book. I am going to beg out of answering your question until we get there with the postings.

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I’m extremely late to this and if anyone who read the post also gets to see this comment, let me ASSURE you that you can definitely read Ron’s book and NOT be a professional philosopher ala Daryll, Zane and Ron. Go out and buy it immediately. Daryll, thanks for summarizing the important argument so well. And for those who are used to hearing “we can be moral without believing in God” from their agnostic friends and then wonder what there might be to say in return that isn’t hateful but is thoughtful and intelligent, this book will be extremely useful. This is a vital conversation to be having in a world that lives with the reality of pluralism but with the needs of particularity. We need more than ever what Ron has called “incarnational humanism.” Thanks for kicking us off, Daryll!