The Human Condition
Religious Literature (Faber & Faber: 1971), p.95.
The mystical conception, fundamental in the great religions of the East, of the soul as imprisoned in matter, and of redemption as salvation and escape from the world of time and the flesh, is incompatible with the sense that all our experience in this world has value and meaning which would seem to inspire the tragic poet... Religions which preach withdrawal from the world of human action, and train the human spirit in detachment from its fellows, teaching it to aspire towards 'the flight of the Alone to the Alone', or to the bliss of Nirvana, put aside the tragic question, and will not inspire artists to find meaning in human life in its short course in this world of illusions.
Faith and Criticism: The Sarum Lectures 1992 (Oxford University Press: 1994), p.49.
I looked at the Gita and was deeply moved, as who could fail to be, but I was not convinced. When it came to the point I found myself quite unable to believe that what happened in the world as the result of my actions was not of ultimate importance. To be sure it mattered little what I, as a single individual, did as the German tanks rolled into France, but what thousands like me did might make a crucial difference to the course of human history. At that moment I discovered myself to be profoundly occidental. ¶ I do not suppose that even now I can render fully explicit what lay behind that conviction, but it had, I believe, something to do with the Christian pattern of Creation and Redemption and a consequent vision of the world as the theatre of irrevocable choices.
Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament (Oxford University Press: 2009), pp. 3-4.
Analytic philosophy as a historical movement has not done much to provide an alternative to the consolations of religion. This is sometimes made a cause for reproach, and for unfavorable comparisons with the continental tradition of the twentieth century, which did not shirk that task. That is one of the reasons that continental philosophy has been better received by the general public: It at least tries to provide nourishment for the soul, the job by which philosophy is supposed to earn its keep. ¶ Analytic philosophers usually rebuff the complaint by pointing out that their concerns are continuous with the central occupations of Western philosophy from Parmenides onward: metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and ethical theory. Those topics have been pursued in a great tradition of works that are often technical and difficult, and that are not intended for a broad audience. The aim of that tradition is understanding, not edification.
Susan Wolf (Princeton University Press: March 2010), 160 pages.
Most people, including philosophers, tend to classify human motives as falling into one of two categories: the egoistic or the altruistic, the self-interested or the moral. According to Susan Wolf, however, much of what motivates us does not comfortably fit into this scheme. Often we act neither for our own sake nor out of duty or an impersonal concern for the world. Rather, we act out of love for objects that we rightly perceive as worthy of love--and it is these actions that give meaning to our lives. Wolf makes a compelling case that, along with happiness and morality, this kind of meaningfulness constitutes a distinctive dimension of a good life. Written in a lively and engaging style, and full of provocative examples, Meaning in Life and Why It Matters is a profound and original reflection on a subject of permanent human concern. ~ Product Description
Herzog (Viking Press: 1964), p. 290.
But what is the philosophy of this generation? Not God is dead, that point was passed long ago. Perhaps it should be stated Death is God. This generation thinks — and this is its thought of thoughts — that nothing faithful, vulnerable, fragile can be durable or have any true power. Death waits for these things as a cement floor waits for a dropping light bulb. The brittle shell of glass loses its tiny vacuum with a burst, and that is that.
The Consequences of Ideas (Good News Publishers: 2009), p. 29.
Protagoras, probably the most influential Sophist in Athens, is frequently described by modern historians as the "father of humanism." His famous maxim, "Homo mensura," declares that "man is the measure of all things," of the existence of things that are and of the nonexistence of things that are not. ¶ From a biblical perspective, of course, the honor of being the first humanist does not belong to Protagoras. Indeed, it is accorded not to a man, but to a serpent whose maxim was "Sicut erat Dei," "You will be like God" (Gen. 3:4).
The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O'Brien (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.: Mar 1991), pp. 6-7.
In a sense, and as in melodrama, killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it. Let's not go too far in such analogies, however, but rather return to everyday words. It is merely confessing that that "is not worth the trouble." Living, naturally, is never easy. You continue making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons, the first of which is habit. Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering. ¶ What, then, is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.
Nathan Jacobson » Philosophical Moments from Caprica, Flash Forward, and Community.
Recently a number of philosophically arresting moments have managed to insert themselves into the television landscape. True to form, Ronald D. Moore and company continue to address contemporary political, philosophical, and religious questions in the alternate world of Caprica, territory he brilliantly charted in his groundbreaking Battlestar Galactica. If the pilot is any indication, Caprica promises to explore even more pointedly themes of religious and ethnic tolerance, terrorism, technology, and the nature of the soul. ABC's FlashForward, clearly aimed at continuing the legacy of Lost and retaining its audience, has somewhat disappointed so far, but has nonetheless woven several provocative existential questions into its narrative, including one powerful Sartrean moment in particular. On the comedic front, NBC's Community had the temerity to devote an episode to whether humanity is intrinsically good or evil, and did so superbly. I'll admit to being prone to vegging in front of the tube even when the viewing is less cerebral, but a couple of these moments had me off the couch cheering for the writers.
The Meaning of Life: According to the Great and the Good, Richard Kinnier, Jerry Kernes, and Nancy Tribbensee, eds. (Palazzo Editions: 2007), p. 108.
We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because comets struck the earth and wiped out dinosaurs, thereby giving mammals a chance not otherwise available (so thank your lucky stars in a literal sense); because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a "higher" answer — but none exists. This explanation, though superficially troubling, if not terrifying, is ultimately liberating and exhilarating. We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers for ourselves...
C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man (1943), chp 3.
Lewis observes that man's increasing power over nature is at the same time the unavoidable empowering of some men over other men, whether it be nation over nation, the majority over the minority, or this generation over the next. "Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger." Lewis imagines that day when science conquers the last domain of nature, human nature, and gains the power to determine even what it is to be human. Released thereby from the dictates of the Tao, an ultimate rule that guides behavior and law in conformity with the natural order, we will have recourse only to impulse, to emotion, to whim. "At the moment, then, of Man's victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely 'natural' — to their irrational impulses. Nature, untrammelled by values, rules the Conditioners and, through them, all humanity. Man's conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature's conquest of Man." Our defeat by nature is the inevitable outcome of making ourselves mere constituents of nature. "Either we are rational spirit obliged forever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own 'natural' impulses." Lewis' Abolition of Man has been widely lauded as one of the great prophetic works of the twentieth century. ~ Afterall
The Meme Machine (Oxford University Press: 2000), pp. 236-7.
Each illusory self is a construct of the memetic world in which it successfully competes. Each selfplex gives rise to ordinary human consciousness based on the false idea that there is someone inside who is in charge. The ways we behave, the choices we make, and the things we say are all a result of this complex structure: a set of memeplexes (including the powerful selfplex) running on a biologically constructed system. The driving force behind everything that happens is replicator power. Genes fight it out to get into the next generation, and in the process biological design comes about. Memes fight it out to get passed on into another brain or book or object, and in the process cultural and mental design comes about. There is no need for any other source of design power. There is no need to call on the creative 'power of consciousness', for consciousness has no power. There is no need to invent the idea of free will. Free will, like the self who 'has' it, is an illusion. Terrifying as thought seems, I suggest it is true.
"The Project of Natural Theology" in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Blackwell: 2009), p. 12.
In contemporary particle physics, objects without mass are posited with primitive charges or spins, which are presumed to be the basic foundations for explaining more complex events. Positing a basic power, terrestrial or divine, is not, ipso facto, explanatorily empty. ... In the sciences, we may well claim that with respect to any explanation, further questions can be asked of it, but this is not the same thing as claiming that science does not or cannot posit basic powers and accounts that are not themselves explained by further powers or scientific accounts. If the sciences can allow that subatomic particles have basic powers, it is hard to see how we can rule out that intentional agents have basic powers.
Nathan Jacobson » Reflections on Invictus and Freedom
Central to the plot of Clint Eastwood's Invictus is William Ernest Henley's short poem of the same name. Though the role of the poem suffers some historical revisionism in the film, its role in the life of Nelson Mandela is worth consideration. The film recounts the remarkable story of Mandela's efforts at national reconciliation through his embrace of the South African rugby team, which at the time remained a symbol of Apartheid's ethnic segregation. In 1996, when I returned for the first time to South Africa, my childhood home, some old friends shared with me how meaningful it was when Mandela appeared at Ellis Park donning the Springbok green and gold. I'm gratified that this remarkable story of reconciliation has made it to the screen, especially while Morgan Freeman is still with us. He was born to play Mandela. During Mandela's long internment on Robben Island, Henley's poem adorned a wall of his cell, a constant reminder that though his freedom had been taken from him, he remained "the captain of his soul". The words of this poem, and their significance to Mandela, underscore a central point of contention in the debate about human free will. It seems to me that one problem with some arguments for compatibilism, the idea that determinism and human responsibility are compatible, is the conflating of freedom and free will. Mandela's story is a powerful reminder that there is freedom beyond freedom. That is, it matters whether we are captains or merely observers of our souls.
Mark Johnston (Princeton University Press: Dec 31, 2009), 408 pages.
In this extraordinary book, Mark Johnston sets out a new understanding of personal identity and the self, thereby providing a purely naturalistic account of surviving death. Death threatens our sense of the importance of goodness. The threat can be met if there is, as Socrates said, "something in death that is better for the good than for the bad." Yet, as Johnston shows, all existing theological conceptions of the afterlife are either incoherent or at odds with the workings of nature. These supernaturalist pictures of the rewards for goodness also obscure a striking consilience between the philosophical study of the self and an account of goodness common to Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism: the good person is one who has undergone a kind of death of the self and who lives a life transformed by entering imaginatively into the lives of others, anticipating their needs and true interests. As a caretaker of humanity who finds his or her own death comparatively unimportant, the good person can see through death. But this is not all. Johnston's closely argued claims that there is no persisting self and that our identities are in a particular way "Protean" imply that the good survive death. Given the future-directed concern that defines true goodness, the good quite literally live on in the onward rush of humankind. Every time a baby is born a good person acquires a new face. ~ Product Description
Time for Truth: Living Free in a World of Lies, Hype & Spin (Baker Books: 2002), pp. 69-71.
Prisoner 174517 was thirsty. Seeing a fat icicle hanging just outside his hut in the Auschwitz extermination camp, he reached out of the window and broke it off to quench his thirst. But before he could get the icicle to his mouth, a guard snatched it out of his hands and dashed it to pieces on the filthy ground. "Warum?" the prisoner burst out instinctively — "Why?" "Hier ist kein warum," the guard answered with brutal finality — "Here there is no why." ¶ That for Primo Levi, the Italian Jewish scientist and writer, was the essence of the death camps — places not only of unchallengable, arbitrary authority but of absolute evil that defied all explanation. In the face of such wickedness, explanations born of psychology, sociology, and economics were pathetic in their inadequacy. One could only shoulder the weight of such an experience and bear witness to the world. "Never again" was too confident an assertion. You never know was the needed refrain.
Aldous Huxley on the Darkness said...
Cited in, Os Guiness, Time for Truth (Baker Books: 2002), p. 77.
Man inhabits, for his own convenience, a homemade universe within the greater alien world of external matter and his own irrationality. Out of the illimitable blackness of the world the light of his customary thinking scoops, as it were, a little illuminated cave — a tunnel of brightness, in which, from the brink of consciousness to its death, he lives, moves, and has his being. .... We ignore the outer darkness; or if we cannot ignore it, if it presses too insistently upon us, we disapprove of being afraid.
Thomas Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind (1788) Essay IV, Chapter I.
Taking square aim at Hume's "Of Liberty and Necessity", Thomas Reid roundly rejects the compatibility of necessity or determinism and moral responsibility and sketches a seminal conception of agent causation.
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section VIII, Part One (1748).
It is universally acknowledged that there is a great uniformity among the actions of men, in all nations and ages, and that human nature remains still the same, in its principles and operations. The same motives always produce the same actions: The same events follow from the same causes. Ambition, avarice, selflove, vanity, friendship, generosity, public spirit: these passions, mixed in various degrees, and distributed through society, have been, from the beginning j of the world, and still are, the source of all the actions and enterprises, which have ever been observed among mankind. Would you know the sentiments, inclinations, and course of life of the Greeks and Romans? Study well the temper and actions of the French and English: You cannot be much mistaken in transferring to the former most of the observations which you have made with regard to the latter. Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature, by showing men in all varieties of circumstances and situations, and furnishing us with materials from which we may form our observations and become acquainted with the regular springs of human action and behaviour. These records of wars, intrigues, factions, and revolutions, are so many collections of experiments, by which the politician or moral philosopher fixes the principles of his science, in the same manner as the physician or natural philosopher becomes acquainted with the nature of plants, minerals, and other external objects, by the experiments which he forms concerning them. Nor are the earth, water, and other elements, examined by Aristotle, and Hippocrates, more like to those which at present lie under our observation than the men described by Polybius and Tacitus are to those who now govern the world.
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section VIII, Part 1 & 2. (1748).
It might reasonably be expected in questions which have been canvassed and disputed with great eagerness, since the first origin of science and philosophy, that the meaning of all the terms, at least, should have been agreed upon among the disputants; and our enquiries, in the course of two thousand years, been able to pass from words to the true and real subject of the controversy. For how easy may it seem to give exact definitions of the terms employed in reasoning, and make these definitions, not the mere sound of words, the object of future scrutiny and examination? But if we consider the matter more narrowly, we shall be apt to draw a quite opposite conclusion. From this circumstance alone, that a controversy has been long kept on foot, and remains still undecided, we may presume that there is some ambiguity in the expression, and that the disputants affix different ideas to the terms employed in the controversy. For as the faculties of the mind are supposed to be naturally alike in every individual; otherwise nothing could be more fruitless than to reason or dispute together; it were impossible, if men affix the same ideas to their terms, that they could so long form different opinions of the same subject; especially when they communicate their views, and each party turn themselves on all sides, in search of arguments which may give them the victory over their antagonists. It is true, if men attempt the discussion of questions which lie entirely beyond the reach of human capacity, such as those concerning the origin of worlds, or the economy of the intellectual system or region of spirits, they may long beat the air in their fruitless contests, and never arrive at any determinate conclusion. But if the question regard any subject of common life and experience, nothing, one would think, could preserve the dispute so long undecided but some ambiguous expressions, which keep the antagonists still at a distance, and hinder them from grappling with each other.