“In its solitariness the spirit asks, What, in the way of value, is the attainment of life? And it can find no such value till it has merged its individual claim with that of the objective universe. Religion is world-loyalty.”
Thinking Through Atheism in a Religious Cosmos (response to professoranton)
9 responses to “Thinking Through Atheism in a Religious Cosmos (response to professoranton)”
Reblogged this on noir realism and commented:
Matthew David Segall has an excellent post on religion and atheism that I had to respond too.
Why do you assume the need of a replacement to begin with? Why do you assume we are supposedly ‘guilty’? Guilty of freedom? Guilty of being born? If you’re going with this tack then why not return to Shame rather than Guilt? Shame before all those others for whom I compete to survive? Jean Delumeau in his magisterial Sin and Fear – The Emergence of Western Guilt Culture 13th-18th Centuries once termed this sense of guilt as the “scruple sickness” instigated by the Catholic (obviously the main religion of the era in question) turn toward introspection and moral enforcement or hygiene. Once you impose a moral code, a set of rules on a community and those go against the natural state of affairs conflict arises which stems the flow of natural aggression. This blockage of natural aggression turned against itself is the beginnings of guilt culture. I’ll not go into the antecedents and also realize this is a simplification of an argument that would take a full detailed work to explicate.
I do not know of any atheists who deny consciousness as a feature of the universe. Even the most blatant eliminativist does not deny consciousness, what they do deny is the permanent implantation of this notion of the first-person-singular, the ‘I’ as Self. Instead they say that it is a mechanism, a function of the brain’s processes just like all other functions, that it comes and goes as needed for specific actions. What eliminativists deny is this notion of capacities and dispositions as existing eternally in consciousness. There are no permanent power, dispotifs, emotions etc. as permanent entities, instead what is taken as the label for all intentional states of affairs is in itself momentary functional process of the brain’s continuous biochemical interactions with the environment.
This notion that “I do not have Freedom, Freedom has me,” seems a perfect example of statement “I do not have Self, Brain is.” The difference between the two statements is the difference between Idealism and Materialism. Freedom is Idea, Brain is Material. You assume the Idea of Freedom is real, that it has real capacity, that it stands for certain modes, capacities, powers, dispotifs that have causal efficacy. For me freedom has none of these, it is an illusion of the Brain doing what it does in a material universe. But that does not divide material into some old mold of an outdated materialism that sees matter as dead. That materialism never existed, that was always a critical appraisal of materialism by its detractors. Materialism is a monism, but does not reduce everything to the physical as some physicalists did during the positivist era. If one studies to the full extent the complete history of materialism one discovers that at the heart of this unique view of life is a sense of openness to existence that need not be final. Existence is not a set of algorithms, neither is it mathematical, nor is it even bound to the term ‘matter’. As in all human thought the moment you qualify the real by such terms you reduce what cannot be reduced to a human equation. We do have limits, we are blind to our own capacities. We take as sufficient what is actually our own ignorance of the true state of affairs. We scramble for definitions, philosophical theories, scientific facts to sway to argue to bind the real to our Ideas of reality. Reality escapes all our human notions. To use a religious metaphor in a secular way (Paul): “We see through a mirror darkly…”. That is all. What little light we shed of this real is always up for revision as we gain more insight and better tools or apparatuses by which to understand it. An open universe is infinite in this sense. Why? Because it does not follow our rules, it invents its own moment by moment (to use an occasionalist or Whiteheadian metaphor). But this need not entail even a reduction to some Big Other behind the scenes causing those relations between moments. To reduce the mystery to either a secular or religious notion is still to equate the real to human need. The universe does not need us, yet we do. That is all.
I think this is a good point, Matt. “But despite this logical coherence, eliminativism entirely fails the pragmatic experiential test. We all experience ourselves as conscious agents, and even if we give our abstract theories of the causal mechanisms that must underly this experience explanatory priority, we still have to account for the illusion of said experience. ”
I suppose my question is why should we give priority to these “abstract theories of causal mechanisms” and not our lived experience? Why must I accord them more than instrumental value and proceed to think of myself and everything else as “nothing but” the abstraction at the end of a neuroscientific investigation? Why not resist?
One of the real problems with Anton’s book Sources of Significance is- aside from the great reading of Becker and Hans Jonas- his reliance on some very conservative and idealist figures. like Kenneth Burke. I came away from that book a bit disappointed overall with the desire for a renewed spirituality and so on, and the way the Stoics are looked at for their ethics at the expense of their much more interesting, and much more materialist, metaphysics. Given that I’m a fan of Becker and his contemporary advocates in the Terror Management Theory crowd, it felt like a real let down to have all this turned back towards the ultimate in post-secular mysticisms. My own position on these things is summed up in the phrase “having faith in the empty space of God”, ie. a faith in the absence of the theological as anything but this kind of grand device for coping-with-being that also refuses to fill the vacancy left by the God who is dead. I am all for Becker’s idea that we are “angels with anuses”, theological animals, but I think that there is a distance between a recognition of this feature of being human and an avowal of it as evidence for a need in the Sacred. I recently wrote a piece on Stirner and idealism, and I have to say that on the question of the Sacred I’m with Stirner- for better or worse- that it is, rather like a drug addiction, a form of coping-with that ultimately does more damage than it soothes; or, that while it soothes one set of problems it introduces another.
In all this I can’t help but think of another fairly conservative figure, perhaps a charlatan, most definitely a guru, who prefigures a lot of the terms of this debate: G.I Gurdjieff. There was a time where I felt both politics and philosophy were on a hiding to nothing (I suppose I was still looking for “a sop to human misery” at that point) and turned towards mystical thought. Although this was only a brief time it was a trip I went through with a friend who became committed to the study of Gurdjieff and joined a group with whom we undertook the Work. While all this seems to have reproduced the organisational and communitarian aspects of the religious, it did so absent a faith, absent a God, and, in line with eliminativism, with a mechanistic concept of consciousness and of the man-machine.
When Gurdjieff did come to a kind of theism he did so out of entirely psychologically pragmatic grounds: “I got tired of seeing myself as an intelligent but unconscious piece of meat”. In Stirner’s critique of idealism a big part of the problem is that Ideas come to dominate real, reduced in his work to the corporeal self. Even swinging away from that kind of thinking towards a materialist territory, it’s pretty obvious that the kernal of all this is that our ideas become problematic once we assume they exist independently of the evolved and historical social neurocognitive infrastructures from which they emerge and through which they proliferate. The core of religion as religious is just such an autonomisation of the ideal. In a way this is just to restate what you’re saying regarding abstracting gently, in realising that abstractions are pieces of machinery rather than entities on their own ground, even as they can appear to take on such a status via their dynamic interactivity.
I suppose what I’m getting at is that Anton, as good as the book is in other places, seems to move back into a resuscitation of religiosity. I think this is evident where he talks about the Stoics as if they weren’t radically atheist. There are some other gripes I could have with Anton’s approach as well- such as his statement that Sources of Significance is a book partly intended for managers and workplace leaders- but those don’t seem all that relevant here.
What do you think?