As you probably know, all this week atheist bloggers are contributing a great deal of effort to support the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) in many different ways. Several are participating in non-stop blogathons, and my friend Dan Fincke, author of the remarkably intelligent and prolific blog Camels With Hammers, will be doing 24 blog posts in 24 hours! It’s already in progress right now, having started at 8:00 AM Eastern time. He’s going to be engaging in fascinating conversations online with at least ten astute and incisive bloggers and thinkers with wide-ranging backgrounds and viewpoints, including Ophelia Benson, Richard Carrier, Zinnia Jones, Vyckie Garrison, Shelley Segal, George Waye, Ian Cromwell, Greg Laden, James Gray, Marta Layton, Dave Smith, JT Eberhard, James Croft, Mary the Catholic Graduate Student, and a few guests who will be interviewed pseudonymously.
It will all be fresh, impromptu, and ad lib, the closest we can get to eavesdropping on brilliant people conversing as they enjoy a meal together, a feast of delicious cognition and contemplation that goes on for 24 hours!
And it’s all for an organization that benefits atheism and atheists: the SSA.
When Dan isn’t blogging, he is an adjunct assistant professor of philosophy at several colleges and universities in the New York area. He is a dedicated, skillful teacher who really works hard to help students understand philosophy and its value to people in their lives.
So I helped him to warm up for today’s big event like a champion boxer by asking him some questions about what philosophical ideas or philosophies would be important for an atheist to understand, either for deepening and enriching our own outlook, or for strengthening and/or making more productive our interactions with theists. In other words, I asked him what basic philosophical concepts should every atheist know. In just a few minutes, he replied with thorough, detailed answers.
While a few regular Friendly Atheist readers are very well versed in philosophy, I am not, and I think there are many like me who would like to have a little sophistication in it, but never had the opportunity to be taught by an expert teacher. For me, reading Dan’s words are at first a challenge, but he proceeds along in a patient, step-by-step manner, and if I just keep reading, I begin to understand. It’s a great pleasure when light bulbs come on about ideas I thought I’d just never get.
I asked him about existentialism and its relationship to the on-going debate between theists and atheists, and I also asked him to talk about what particular philosophical ideas and skills he would like to see all atheists possess.
One more enticement: Every post on Friendly Atheist generates income from our host, Patheos, when people click on the individual post pages. All the money that this post acquires I will donate to the SSA, and I will match it with my own funds. It’s not a heck of a lot of money, but hey, I can at least pretend I’m Todd Stiefel. You’ll be doubling the benefit, and if you feel inspired to give some money of your own, there’s a link inside to do that easily.
So here’s your chance to learn some interesting and useful philosophy, and give to a good cause at the same time! Enjoy the read below, and then use any of the several links to visit Dan’s remarkable website, as well as watch him in hour-by-hour blogathon action!
You can give your support the Secular Student Alliance before our philosophy “class” begins. It takes a great deal of courage and determination for students to organize secular groups at high schools and colleges where there is often a great deal of hostility and resistance from other students and administrators. The SSA gives young non-believers the tools, support and guidance they need to break through the barriers and to fight for their rights. Give them some help.
Richard: I often hear references about existentialism in dialogues and debates between sophisticated atheists and theists. Both sides seem to use it for themselves and against the other side. Can you explain what existentialism is, and how it relates to this seemingly unending controversy? Also, I often hear references to Nietzsche. How does he fit into it?
Dan Fincke: Existentialism is a philosophy with both prominent theistic and atheistic forms. It is an approach to philosophy which emphasizes subjectivity and the struggle to attain objectivity as beings who inevitably are always to some extent subjective.
Theistic existentialists pay an inordinate amount of attention to the ways that their beliefs about God are rooted in what they take to be an interaction with God that cannot be fully explained or justified to others. They tend to be sensitized to the fact that they have an epistemological problem. Kierkegaard, for example, is considered one of the “godfathers” of existentialism and pretty much the paradigmatic Christian existentialist even though the term was not around when he wrote. He has a section in which he talks about Abraham being asked to kill his son Isaac and about how that demand goes beyond all rational forms of justification.
Kierkegaard explores how Abraham killing his son in this manner could not be justified either ethically or aesthetically but could only be justified by faith. And then he explores the onus that is placed on Abraham to figure out exactly what is going on, whether it is really God who is making him think he should do this. Kierkegaard highlights the precariously subjective and arbitrary character of faith and how it is a leap beyond rational explanations.
Other existentialists try to emphasize that humans, as subjective beings, cannot be reduced to objects. When we think about each other on a daily basis we have a tendency to think of each other almost as things. We classify each other according to sets of properties. When we think in terms of general properties we are essentially categorizing each other with others of the same kind. There is a temptation to think of the psychotherapist as the dispenser of psychotherapy the way the soda machine is the dispenser of soda. The plumber is a thing for fixing the pipes, comparable to the way that the liquid plumber one buys in the store is. As long as we are in the mode of thinking of others as things, i.e., objects with general properties that they share with other things of similar kinds, we fail to engage with them directly as fellow subjects with subjective consciousness like our own.
We think of them in what Martin Buber called an I-It relationship, rather than in an I-You relationship. It’s like when looking at their face, we are focused on all the superficial surface physical features of their face and not seeing through that to the irreducibly subjective person that his or her visual facial features are barely able to express. We can hardly think of each other in each other’s purely subjective, active, thinking mode. Thinking of each other means reducing each other to objective features—whether physical or mental or functional—that allow us to think of them as objects. Relating to someone means moving past thinking of them as an object and directly engaging them. It is a constant struggle we have to really connect with others subject to subject as our minds constantly slip into objectification mode. (A lot of the discourse about objectification of women, I think, has philosophical roots and context in this sort of framework for example.)
So theistic existentialists view their relationship to God in these sorts of categories and, sometimes, approach understanding their Scriptures in this way too.
They want to figure out how to avoid objectifying God, i.e., thinking of God as an objectively reducible and knowable thing with a set of properties to be abstractly studied and scrutinized. Instead they want to engage with God as a fellow subjectivity that one relates to rather than thinks about, and relates to in ways that even cannot be adequately talked about, or abstractly defended, on that account.
And whereas literalist fundamentalist believers want to reduce the Scriptures to a set of objectively true propositions, theistic existentialists influenced by the existentialist theologian Karl Barth seek instead to subjectively encounter God through the text. This is their rather ingenious way of evading rational critique. This is how many theologically contemporary and philosophically informed believers just eschew us “New Atheists” when we treat the Bible as a set of logically or scientifically or morally testable propositions about the world. They try to claim that is objectifying God and His Word. God is a subjectivity, not an object, not a thing. And the Word of God is similarly not a set of fixed objective facts but a vehicle for God to communicate with each believer in a living way.
Of course, to a rationalist, like me and many other atheists, this sort of subjectivity then makes the text objectively meaningless and gives believers free reign to use it as the most convenient Rorschach test in the world. Not only do the believers get to see whatever they feel like and whatever reflects their own prejudices and philosophies (however incoherent) but they get to then rubber stamp them as “God’s Word”. But it is interesting to note that they are riffing off some interesting and sophisticated philosophy about objectification vs. subjective engagement which in other, more limited contexts, has some ethically and psychologically illuminating value. And their misapplication of this framework to theology insulates their minds from a lot of our criticisms of religion and theism that aims only at literalists and does not directly engage this stuff.
As for atheistic existentialism? The emphasis is again on subjectivity and the ways in which we are not merely objects and we supposedly cannot get objective guidance as to how we should live. The objects of our creation have essences we devise in our minds before we create them. The idea of the chair or the i-pod existed before the actual thing did. Before there ever was an i-pod there were schematics for one drawn up and purposes designated for the thing. According to the atheistic existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, it is not that way for humans. We are not born with a blueprint and a design for what we are supposed to do. Obvious biological limitations aside, we have no constraints or guidance with respect to how we may choose to live our lives.
For Sartre, we do not have a fixed nature that says we have only this or that functionality that we must fulfill. We cannot ask what are “humans” made to do. We are not made to do anything. We can do anything. There is no right or wrong that comes from our nature, from our “essence”, and we are radically free to choose as we will. So unlike the manmade object whose essence is determined abstractly before it ever actually exists in an instantiated form, the human subject exists first, with no essence, and must make choices without any ability to appeal to an essence to justify its choices. So atheistic existentialism is strongly bound up with notions about their being a heavy responsibility on people to find their own way and to create their own meaning in life and to determine their own values without any objective guidance.
Existential crises are those moments when one realizes the finitude of time one has at one’s disposal and is challenged by the difficulty in determining how to make hard choices without any definitive guidance from external authorities. We cannot simply take heart that “God has a plan for our lives” and we cannot say, “I must do x for it is what I was made to do” and we cannot shirk the responsibility for our meager choices by blaming them on the limitations of what we are. It is always in our power to choose otherwise and to become otherwise than we are in a whole host of possible ways. And so that is our responsibility and it is a form of self-deception (what Sartre calls “bad faith”) to try to deny that and claim we had no choices in life or that we are bound by fate or nature or circumstance or society to be whatever we are. This is a dishonest attempt to evade our, in truth, inescapable freedom and the responsibility that it gives us to make choices, whether we want to or not.
Unfortunately atheistic existentialists talked a lot about associating the embrace of atheism with a threat of despair, meaninglessness, purposelessness, and loss of objective value. Nietzsche was, like Kierkegaard, not actually an existentialist by name but is often considered a forerunner. He has a famous section in his book The Gay Science called “The madman”, in which a madman runs into a crowded marketplace crying out that he seeks God. Interestingly the people in the marketplace are atheists and they mock him for looking for God. The madman then proclaims that God is dead and that (an unspecified) “we” killed Him, that “all that was highest and holiest has bled beneath our knives”.
Nietzsche’s madman character then goes on to describe the loss of God in terrible terms. He claims that by killing God we have “wiped away the horizon” with a sponge (symbolizing a loss of hope for the future), we have drunk up the sea (representing the loss of a sense of the vast and eternal), we have unchained the earth from its sun (meaning we have lost our orientation point and source of light) and now the earth is plummeting through space, out of its proper orbit, and the days are getting darker and colder. The churches are now just the “tombs and sepulchers” of God. And having done this terrible and incredible thing, killing off what we have always taken to be the very source of value itself, we have to become like gods to feel worthy of what we have done. We will feel like gods because we were able to actually kill God. And, I think more resonantly, we will have to be like gods because we will need to be new value creators ourselves. And to the mindset that assumes that values can only come from gods, that means we must be gods if we are to create values.
Sartre describes this situation in which there are no gods to create our values for us as one of “abandonment” and “despair”. Reading Sartre it seems like having a God would be preferable. It would mean not being “abandoned” to the task of creating meaning and purpose and value for ourselves. It would mean not having to deal with the existential crisis of responsibility for creating our own essences without any guide. It is this sort of language that theists absolutely love to exploit. They see this as playing right into their hands. When the New Atheists rightly complain about the memes that atheism leads to nihilism and objective meaninglessness and loss of all hope for grounding objective values, they are not merely attacking a strawman insofar as hugely philosophically prominent and significant atheists have owned and developed that narrative themselves. And not least of them have been the atheistic existentialists. In some ways they have given the Christians a hand by describing in intricate philosophical and psychological detail exactly what the allegedly hopeless condition of man without God and need of God looks like according to Christianity. And the Christians are set up to offer their antidote. Jesus.
Now, Nietzsche realized that the entire idea that the Christian God is the sine qua non for meaning in life was a falsehood. He thought of the Christian values as utterly false, as hostile to nature, and as ultimately a total inversion of what he considered to be natural values. I argue in my dissertation, and frequently on my blog, that Nietzsche did think there could be genuine values and that they could be grounded in nature, as being in some way a part of nature. The idea that we are hopeless and without meaning or grounded values without the Christian God is Christian messaging meant to create a false sense of need so that we will buy the Christian product.
Nietzsche’s overall project is to highlight to other atheists the need to understand the despair that Christian cultures and individuals who have been mentally set up to expect that value can only come from Christianity will feel the more they come to be disabused of their false religious beliefs. Nietzsche’s madman is not a harbinger of a truth that without God there is no true hope or meaning or purpose or value. Rather the madman is a warning about the existential crisis of those who have been taught to invest their hopes, values, and meaning in a particular set of expected founts of meaning, hope, and value that are about to run dry. Nietzsche is not really saying that we cannot have these good things without the monotheistic God but that people are going to feel that way more and more and that if atheists do not work out ambitious, constructive, naturalistic alternative accounts of meaning, hope, and value that are truer and capable of inspiring an increasingly truthful culture, the West could succumb to a really nasty and destructive form of hopeless nihilism. Inspired by Nietzsche, my philosophical work, especially at Camels With Hammers, aims to develop the kinds of constructive, post-Christian ethics that Nietzsche thought was so vitally necessary.
For blog posts in which Dan explains his positive moral philosophy and how there can be objective values, see the following posts:
Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”
If You Don’t Believe In Objective Values, Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either
Mutable Morality, Not Subjective Morality. Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.
How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity
The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)
Richard: Thank you, Dan, that was excellent. Now, what particular basic philosophical ideas and skills would you like to see atheists all have? What do we need to make our interactions with theists and with each other more productive?
Dan Fincke:Three philosophical concepts, understandings, or skill sets I think are very important for atheists:
Firstly, I think atheists need to embrace that there are multiple angles under which to understand the same reality. Atheists sometimes have an annoying tendency in my experience to be reductionists, especially about matters that are part of the social or moral or psychological world. They often want to say things like we’re all really just a bunch of atoms. There is a tendency to talk like the only level of explanation that is at all meaningful is on the physics level. Now, of course everything in our experience is ultimately physical and made up of atoms, which are further composed of subatomic particles. But that does not mean that atoms are the only level on which true things can be said. Those atoms combine in remarkably complex patterns that give rise to the objects of study in chemistry, biology, psychology, and sociology. Those emergent patterns are real. It’s not like in biology we say, “There’s no such thing as evolution because this organism and its descendants are really still just patterns of atoms”. The differences in the patterns of atoms that make up one organism and its offspring are significant. They are worth saying there is something new evolved in nature when an organism is distinct enough in the patterns of its properties from its ancestors. These are real subjects of study. Real differentiations in nature. It would be stupidity to judge those patterns as somehow artificial simply because there is a way to conceptualize the organisms in purely atomic terms that pay no attention to the features that are interesting on the biological level.
If I and a statue of a human were to fall out of a window together, the physicist can treat us like simply too bodies of a certain mass and not have to take much interest in the other differences between us in calculating how gravity will act upon us. But that does not mean that is the most meaningful way to understand the human and the statue—as just two bodies of mass that gravity acts on. There are more fascinating real patterns which emerge.
And in a similar way, there are real and meaningful patterns in the social world and ethical world that are really there. They are not just fictions because there is a level at which we can reduce things to chemicals or molecules or atoms. The patterns of the social and ethical world are emergent just as biological forms are. But they are real patterns in reality. There are more ways to explain the world than physically, even though on the most constitutive level it is all physical.
And we should be philosophizing in these directions so that we stop trying to disregard the reality of psychological experiences and moral categories as somehow fictions of our minds, whereas all things really are are their properties that physicists can analyze.
Or, in the case of ethics, the danger is psychologization. So we discover that our moral judgments arise as inspired by various feeling states or are conditioned by some combination of natural selection or cultural determinants. That’s great when we work that stuff out. But understanding the mechanisms that make us inclined to this or that moral judgment naturally is totally different than understanding which moral judgments it is really best we make. Knowing the psychological and biological and (even) physics level determinants of how the judgment happens to come to our head does not strip it of its reality as ultimately a good or a bad way to think for us.
Secondly, I think there are two basic things I want to counsel atheists about philosophy. One is that they need to accept that there are some questions that are legitimate, that have consequences, and which do not go away simply because we ignore them, and yet their answers are not neat and tidy. Atheists need to embrace the messy process of working out tough philosophical issues without just accusing them of being sophistical because they cannot be settled by science or because theists try to exploit the ambiguities to make sophistical arguments for God.
We need to be better than fundamentalists who say “give me certainty or shut up”. We need to be okay with the fact that philosophical problems are hard to resolve. Because the only other option is to be sloppy about a lot of philosophical questions that eventually have bearing on our lives. Metaethics, the study of what our ethical terms mean, and whether or not they refer to real things or not, and whether moral norms are truly binding or not, is an important discipline. So is ethics in general. Of course these are notoriously inconclusive discourses but we cannot dispense with them because that only means worse, less nuanced ethical decisions. And that’s clearly bad. We cannot have an all or nothing attitude where metaethicists and ethicists give us perfect knowledge or otherwise we simply ignore them. We need to work these things out to as much depth as we can, not because this will give us perfect answers, but it will at least expose to us all sorts of problems we can avoid by bringing to light for us numerous bad answers or inadequacies in various overly simple answers that common sense might offer.
We have to accept that often philosophy works in this way and that even though it is a different kind of benefit it offers than the hardest sciences, it is a real benefit and one that we are much worse off without. And we need to be comfortable with the uncertainty and the process of philosophy in the meantime.
Finally, When it comes to arguing with theists, atheists need to separate the concept of a personal god from the concept of a “ground of all being”. There is a mystery about existence and it is not going away anytime soon. Our brains are set up to conceive of all things in causal terms. We understand everything in terms of what component parts cause things to be and what temporal processes cause things to be. It is a serious philosophical problem how anything can exist without having either temporal or constituent causes. This is because no things in our physical world lack such causes. But can the universe itself just lack a cause? Or can the most basic physical constituents be eternal entities? Or does it need some other distinct being or set of beings distinct which has a different nature than physical things, one by which it simply exists without constituent components or temporal causes while all physical things need constituent or temporal causes?
In either case something seems to have to be eternal in order for beings that are dependent on other factors to exist at all. Because if beings that depend on other factors outside themselves to exist were all there were, then none of them could have been the first to exist. None of them could have been the kind of thing to wink itself into being.
So either the uncaused basic constituents of the physical world, or the physical world taken as a totality in some sense, or a multiverse of universes, or an uncaused causing being outside of the whole universe or multiverse has to be eternal. Ultimately something seems to have to be eternal because if everything whatsoever needed a cause then nothing would have been in the first place because no thing could have gotten its initial cause.
That’s what the philosophical insight into the possibility of God really is. It is the idea that something has to be eternal. And even when Lawrence Krauss came out this spring and called philosophers morons for not wanting to say that something can come from nothing in the metaphysical sense, when pushed about where our universe came from Krauss said it was probably part of a multiverse and that that multiverse was (drumroll please) eternal. This concept of eternity is the issue. When good theistic philosophers say “something cannot come from nothing” what they really mean is that we must speculate that something is just there of its own accord not caused by anything else.
And I think atheists need to embrace that line of reasoning, get it out of the way, and shift the ground to personhood. Because theists have, for centuries, successfully equivocated between the compelling case that something is eternal and the idea of a personal deity. While we can grant right out, yes, something must be eternal, I think we should then just dwell on incredibly arbitrary and unfounded it is to posit that such an eternal being must have a mind. Whatever basic constituent of existence or being that emanates all other beings may exist, it is no more likely to be personal than the law of gravity is. It is either an impersonal metaphysical principle or it is just an aspect of impersonal subatomic particles. Personality arises as a specific complex phenomenon among living beings. It’s not something metaphysical principles or constituent particles or a multiverse would have. So theism is not at all vindicated by the mystery of eternity. Atheists should embrace the mystery of eternity and then just focus on the implausibility of personal god theism.
Richard: Thank you Dan for this bounty of education that so swiftly and lucidly flowed out of you. Speaking of interacting with theists, I want to finish with one more link to a post you did that was very popular when it was introduced on Friendly Atheist a few months ago. I have used your wise advice in it several times:
Top Ten Tips For Reaching Out To Religious Believers
One more pitch for donating to the Secular Student Alliance. These young people carry our hopes for a better, more rational world. Help them to organize and to support each other on high school and college campuses!