Tag Archives: philosophy

Crash course on existentialism with Sartre

A bible-study companion of mine recently sent me Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism”. Here’s my response:

Thanks for sending that over! I must admit I haven’t read much of Sartre, so the lecture you sent helped remedy that.

I have a hard time differentiating existentialism from hedonism, something Sartre seems to acknowledge at least by accident when he talks about how existentialism got an early reputation for exalting man’s baser actions.

I suppose if we are to consider existence to come before essence then it logically follows that whatever I experience (ie. my present state of existence) should be considered of greater value than what I know (ie. knowledge of a transcendent essence). And if we are to begin with the subjective then it stands to reason that we can never attain knowledge of the divine. This struggle of where to begin epistemologically was also wrestled with by Plato and Aristotle (succinctly captured in this piece of art which depicts Plato’s notion of idealism which is the polar opposite of what Sartre is arguing for) and was also eloquently expressed by Francis Schaeffer (notably in his “Modern Man & Epistemology” lecture).

The third objection, stated by saying, “You take with one hand what you give with the other,” means, at bottom, “your values are not serious, since you choose them yourselves.” To that I can only say that I am very sorry that it should be so; but if I have excluded God the Father, there must be somebody to invent values.

One of the most instrumental Christian philosophers who paved the way for this kind of thinking, at least in the Church, was Friedrich Schleiermacher who argued that the primary way we know God is through our emotions and not through revelation/reason.

Its interesting how Sartre calls for men to be stewards of the emerging essence of mankind at the same time he claims that there is no ideal essence we are obliged to grow towards. I would agree with his notion that we should act as if all of mankind is defined by our actions, but that only makes sense if there is an objective and external observer whose favor or disapproval mattered. Sartre borrows much from the Christianity he misrepresents (ie. that Christian teaching is determined by the subjective whims of priests) and loathes. In fact, his a priori assumption that moral ideals would remain unchanged if we were to find that God doesn’t exist stands in direct opposition to his admission that Dostoevsky’s notion that “without God all things are permissible”. And he further contradicts himself when he talks about an ideal form of morality whose particulars are subject to change!

I understand why he claims that existentialism is a form of humanism, mostly because it puts man in the center of the universe. But like all other humanistic variants, it suffers from the same frailties that all men do. Namely our lack of omniscience and immortality, both of which it seems Sartre struggles with mightily to no avail.

Thanks again for the paper. Here are some movies on existentialism in case you’re interested to see what Hollywood does with this philosophy. There are a lot of big name actors in these movies which leads me to believe that existentialism is held in high esteem by much of Hollywood.

  • eXistenZ - The director required the cast to read Sartre and other existential philosophers in preparation for the movie
  • I heart Huckabees - Plot centers around a team of existential detectives
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The McGurk effect and what it tells us about our noetic faculties

Here is an excellent example of the McGurk effect:

My interpretation of this effect is based on the physics of both sound and light waves. Based on Shannon’s theorum, light carries more information than sound so it makes sense that our minds would, when presented with conflicting information. So it is understandable why many people operate on the principle of “seeing is believing”. However the McGurk effect should serve as a warning to us that when faced with problems of interpreting information, what we are seeing may be masking the truth of what we are perceiving.

Loosing faith: My deconversion story

I’ve weighed the evidence, listened to the best debaters, and carefully examined the scriptures. And I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that I simply can’t believe in it anymore.

The most articulate priests and prophets were unable to persuade me of the validity of their position. And they were wholly unable to answer the serious questions I had about the sacred texts. Even in the original languages its plain that the texts are hopelessly riddled with errors and omissions.

If I had to pinpoint what tipped me over the edge, though, I suppose it would have to be the dismal performance of one of the faithful’s most ardent defenders in a recent debate.

If I’ve throughly unnerved you by this point then my post has Happy April fools day! And in case you haven’t figured it out yet, my post is about scientism with the priests and prophets being the new atheists and the sacred texts being their books and others including Darwin’s classic, Origin of Species.

Parallel universes: The materialist’s comfort in the face of death

If you want to get a good idea of the best way materialists have to deal with the otherwise nihilistic implications of their philosophical system, take a look at this clip from the movie “Rabbit Hole“.

I find it interesting how the boy makes the assertion that the notion of parallel universes are 1. infinite and 2. well evidenced by science. The truth is that 1. parallel universes are not infinite (as a matter of logical deduction) and 2. have absolutely no evidence for them whatsoever.

I’ve studied this theory for quite a while now. Ever since 5th grade in fact. And while stories like Quantum Leap and Number of the Beast may be wildly entertaining, the fact is that they simply don’t hold water scientifically (for a number of logical and philosophical reasons) and they ultimately provide no hope for anyone searching for real answers worth staking your life on.

Additionally, here is a documentary which attempts to breathe spiritual life into the otherwise dead philosophy of materialism. If you listen closely you will be able to pick up on the distinct fingerprints of post modernism. In order to add any weight to an otherwise vacuous theory, it is wholly necessary to wage an all-out epistemological assault on the mind. If we call into question what we know and how certain we can be of what we know, then we can sneak in a theory like parallel universes which has no real evidence to speak of.

However they do raise a very valid point about the question of where our knowledge really lies. I would argue, along the lines of Alvin Plantinga, that without God, the ability to reason and trust our thoughts is clear evidence of a personal creator.

Blaise Pascal on universals and particulars

From Pensées 40:

If we wished to prove the examples which we take to prove other things, we should have to take those other things to be examples; for, as we always believe the difficulty is in what we wish to prove, we find the examples clearer and a help to demonstration.
Thus, when we wish to demonstrate a general theorem, we must give the rule as applied to a particular case; but if we wish to demonstrate a particular case, we must begin with the general rule. For we always find the thing obscure which we wish to prove and that clear which we use for the proof; for, when a thing is put forward to be proved, we first fill ourselves with the imagination that it is, therefore, obscure and, on the contrary, that what is to prove it is clear, and so we understand it easily.
Obscurity is the inherent problem with systems of thought that begin with man (particulars) and not with God (universal). That is why materialism, ethical objectivism, and moral relativism all end up in an incoherent mess when followed to their conclusion.

5 Flaws In The Thinking Of The New Atheists

Judging good art from bad art

Previously I raised the question of whether we could judge whether something qualified as art or not. I explored the objective definition of art and how two criteria must be met before something can be considered art or not. Now I want to delve into the topic of whether we can measure good art from bad art and, if so, how we can go about determining the quality of art in an objective sense.

To recap, the criteria of art is that it must :

  1. Have a definitive message to send
  2. Portrayed this message in such a way that is is possible to be understood by the recipient

So it would follow that art can be measured on both it’s content, what it is attempting to convey, and then it’s style, how well it communicates that message.

Renaissance painters like Rembrandt often chose as the message they wished to communicate either a concept from Scripture or the beauty of nature. The former message is rather simple and easy to judge, the painting either succeeds or fails in it’s attempt to portray the Biblical concept. There is not much work for the viewer to do other than link the artwork with the foreknown content.

However judging whether art achieves it’s goal in communicating beauty is quite another matter entirely. In fact, an entire area of philosophy is dedicated to studying the nature of beauty. This area of philosophy is known as Aesthetics.

Since aesthetics is closely linked to other areas of philosophy like morality, it is easy for many people, especially those steeped in postmodern forms of thought, to dismiss the concept of beauty as if statements regarding beauty were subjective descriptions of personal preference rather than propositional statements regarding objective truth.

If we define beauty as a purely subjective notion, with no ideal to measure against, then our ability to discern good art from bad art is crippled at the outset.

If beauty has no ideal then there is no real difference between my 5 year old daughter’s artwork and Rembrandt’s artwork.

This lack of understanding beauty in any objective sense, I would contend, is the reason that trash is now considered art. Without a standard to measure by, emotional shock value, or the ability of a “piece”1 to illicit an emotional response from the viewer.

But the viewer does not confer anything to the piece. The viewer, at best, can only recognize the piece for what it is, or is not.

Good art, therefore, depends on it’s ability to communicate with the viewer. How well it does in communicating the message intended by the artist and how well it does so in an aesthetically pleasing manner.

Bad art, consequently, is ugly. That is, it is not aesthetically pleasing. It does not convey beauty.

Now I realize that, at this point, many people will object on the grounds that the definition of beauty has not been settled. Fair enough. I won’t attempt here to delve into the philosophical discipline I mentioned above which deals with this issue in-depth.

What I will say, however, is that before we consider whether a piece is good or bad art, we need to first settle the question of whether it qualifies as art in the first place. After that question is answered, then we can discuss what the piece aims at communicating and whether it achieves those aims. And after all of that, we can discuss whether the subject of the piece is itself beautiful or not.

  1. I would readily agree these works are pieces alright, but we need to qualify that by answering the begged question “pieces of what?” []

Wordy Wednesday: Causal determinism

I’ve used the phrase “causal determinism” quite a lot recently when talking about the doctrine of Middle Knowledge/Molinism and one of it’s chief competitors, the Calvinistic notion of soverigenty which posits God as being the one who “decrees all that comes to pass”.

Since this isn’t a phrase that isn’t often used outside of philosophical circles, I figured it would be helpful to take a minute and define this term and how it has a significant bearing on the philosophical presuppositions we filter everything, including our interpretation of Scripture, through.

Simply put, causal determinism is the notion that every event is directly caused or decreed either by an impersonal force like the Fates or destiny, a natural series of causes and effects1 constrained within a causally closed system2, or a personal deity like Allah or, as some suppose, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures.

A more in-depth study regarding the validity of the notion of causal determinism3 is beyond the scope of this post. My intention here is to merely present the term for edification and clarification in the future as we explore what I believe to be one of the most significant divisions within all of Christendom. Indeed, I would argue (elsewhere of course) that the abandonment of causal determinism is one of the defining characteristics of Christianity.

  1. Think about the famous, but hopelessly simplistic, debate regarding nature vs. nurture []
  2. That is, the notion that there are no non-material influences or causes. No souls or wills. Your mind is merely a biological information processing unit. []
  3. Or, as Turretinfan asserts, oozes from Scripture []

Resources for more information on Molinism/Middle Knowledge

Since my post on Molinism/Middle Knowledge garnered some interest I figured it would be helpful to provide some more resources on the subject for anyone who is interested in exploring, as William Lane Craig puts it, such a fruitful doctrine further:

Audio

William Lane Craig‘s multi-part series “Doctrine of God” taught in his Sunday School class (Defenders) at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church

Articles

Philosophia Christi is a scholarly periodical published by the Evangelical Philosophical Society which regularly has articles both for and against Middle Knowledge, recently Vol 11 Num 1 2009 featured Steven B. Cowan (Editor of Five Views on Apologetics) against and Scott A Davison (Professor of Philosophy at Morehead State University) for with some good interaction between them both.

Books

Other notable proponents of Middle Knowledge1 include:

I would be remiss if I were to claim this as an exhaustive list of proponents or resources pertaining to Middle Knowledge/Molinism so if you know of any other resources, by all means, let me know!

  1. These include both active and passive proponents of Middle Knowledge/Molinism. Not all of these people actively promote Middle Knowledge by itself but all, as far as I know, hold to this doctrine and deem it useful or “fruitful” in answering other theological/philosophical issues. The most significant being the question of evil. []

The myth of secular morality

This is a response to a post a friend of mine recently made outlining a secular basis for morality1 centered on empathy or “the golden rule” as the objective standard by which we ought to order our lives.

This comes as part of a long-running discussion where I maintain that, in order for morality to be of any substance2 , it must first be objective3 , timeless4, and transcendent5. To that end, I would like to offer two conjoined arguments in opposition to the proposed secular basis for morality based on empathy and the golden rule.

1.) The philosophical foundations of naturalism do not support the case for empathy being a standard.

If by secularism we mean philosophical naturalism in the sense that the only reality is the physical reality of atoms, particles, and “laws of nature” to the exclusion of metaphysical constructs such as a soul then our biggest hurdle to overcome, long before we deal with the grounds of any objective morality, is to answer where we get the notion of “ought to” from.

In other words, if matter is all there is, then all of our actions are essentially predetermined by our genes through chemical reactions happening in our brains. In this scenario we can no more will ourselves to be good, upright individuals than a sociopath who has no conscience.

Furthermore, as naturalists, we remove from ourselves the categories of right and wrong and are merely left with preferences which, even if applied to a societal level, still find no objective basis since it is still the subject (whether an individual or collective) that is determining the correctness of any given action (or intention/motive) and not a fixed standard that fits the criteria outlined at the outset which is required if our goal is a standard that is truly objective.

The only imbalance that can be found in this scenario is an imbalance of opinion and preference so that, when I say that you have wronged me, all I am doing is merely expressing a difference in opinion over your actions or intentions.

However, the fact that humans throughout history, and even the secular humanist, feel the need for a basis to morality is a rather curious notion6 since, without a truly objective standard to go by, all we would be left with would be moral relativism which, being relative to the individual or culture, would provide no real guidance at all, let alone one based on empathy.

2.) The philosophical presuppositions in the argument of empathy seem to assume that all humans have some sort of inherent worth and are of equal value which, given the secular or naturalistic view outlined above, is as incoherent in a naturalistic or secular world view as the notion of a free will able to effect a downward causal change in the mind/body7.

At a certain level we agree that empathizing with animals is a good thing to do. However, at some point we tend to eat our small furry (or feathery) friends which seems to indicate that humans are in a category of their own8 indicating either speciesm or an indication that humans are, indeed, unique among the other “animals” in the evolutionary struggle.

Given that nature is also “red with tooth and claw“, and that animals regularly eat their own kind9, we can safely conclude that humans are alone in their ability10 to “empathize” which seems to indicate that the notion of empathy is, at best, ambiguous11 and, at worse, completely irrelevant to simple propagation of the species12.

The bottom line is that empathy, while sounding like the holy grail of secular ethics and morality does not line up with the philosophical naturalism it is built upon.

In conclusion; only in a world where humans were created equal13 would the golden rule or “empathy” make sense. Indeed, I would submit the fact that we find this golden rule upheld in some degree amongst nearly all cultures across the world and across time give us a good indication that we are, indeed, created equally and ought to therefore question seriously the foundation of our equality just in case that foundation happens to be a person like us14.

  1. As opposed to a theocentric model where morality is ultimately based on God and His Law []
  2. That is, not a myth. []
  3. That is, outside of myself. []
  4. Not constrained by time and space. []
  5. Cannot change with time []
  6. “Human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and can’t really get rid of it.” –C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity []
  7. That is, naturalism presupposes a deterministic view of causal actions which, by default, makes the concept of a “free will” incoherent. []
  8. or at least view themselves as such []
  9. Cannibalism, not only for food, but, in the case of preying mantises, even as a means of sexual arousal []
  10. and willingness to do so consistently []
  11. that is, just as much of a cosmic accident as we supposedly are []
  12. especially since altruism and self-sacrifice are values directly opposed to the Darwinistic notion of self-preservation []
  13. That is, their metaphysical souls created in the likeness of God []
  14. Yes, I am referring to God which, if he exists would require us to extend the rule of empathy to him as well. More so, since having created us he would occupy a higher place of importance than a fellow human being created in his image which, coincidentally, is what Jesus taught when he summed up the teachings of the Bible in two statements dealing with love. Both of God and of men. []