Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Myth of Sisyphus

In his recent collection of essays, Thomas Nagel delineates the stark comparison and contrast between the religious outlook and the irreligious outlook. Nagel is, himself, an atheist. However, unlike some of his militant colleagues, he’s not ashamed to take religion seriously or explore the moral implications of atheism.

His exposition of the “religious temperament” suffers somewhat from attempting to employ a generic definition of religiosity. That inevitably leads to a highly diluted definition. Nevertheless, it’s instructive to see a prominent secular philosopher attempt a sympathetic exposition of the religious temperament. And it also instructive to see him then use that description as the benchmark against which he describes the atheistic alternative. For he’s not afraid to admit the grim consequences of atheism.

“The subject overlaps with that of the meaning of life, but it is not the same. It is a question of making sense not merely of our lives, but of everything. To better identify the question, we should start with the religious response…It is the idea that there is some kind of all-encompassing mind or spiritual principle in addition to the minds of individual human beings and other creatures–and that this mind or spirit is the foundation of the existence of the universe, of the natural order, of value, and of our existence, nature, and purpose. The aspect of religious belief I am talking about is belief in such a conception of the universe, and the incorporation of that belief into one’s conception of oneself and one’s life,” T. Nagel, Secular Philosophy and Religious Temperament (Oxford 2010), 4-5.

“The important thing for the present discussion is that if you have such a belief, you cannot think of yourself as leading a merely human life. Instead, it becomes a life in the sight of God, or an element in the life of the world soul. You must try to bring this conception of the universe and your relation to it into your life, as part of the point of view from which it is led. This is part of the answer to the question of who you are and what you are doing here. It may include a belief in the love of God for his creatures, belief in an afterlife, and other ideas about the connection of earthly existence with the totality of nature or the span of eternity. The details will differ, but in general a divine or universal mind supplies an answer to the question of how a human individual can live in harmony with the universe,” ibid. 5.

“The question I have in mind is a general one about the relation of individual human life to the universe as a whole. The question is pointed to by its religious answer: namely, that our lives are in some way expressions or parts of the spiritual sense of the universe as a whole, which is its deepest reality, and that we must try to live them in light of this, and not only from the point of view of our local purely individual nature,” ibid. 5.

“Without God, it is unclear what we should aspire to harmony with. But still, the aspiration can remain, to live not merely the life of the creature one is, but in some sense to participate through it in the life of the universe as a whole. To be gripped by this desire is what I mean by the religious temperament. Having, amazingly, burst into existence, one is a representative of existence itself–of the whole of it–not just because one is part of it but because it is present to one’s consciousness,” ibid. 6.

“Let me begin by discussing the dismissive response that probably fits most comfortably with the analytic tradition….This is certainly a possible secular stance: Take life as you find it, and try to play the hand you have been dealt by the contingencies of biology, culture, and history. It is possible to go far beyond these boundaries in the pursuit of pure understanding, but all such understanding will be essentially scientific,” ibid. 6-7.

“This important outlook, probably dominant among atheists, places physical science at the top of the hierarchy of understanding for the universe as a whole…But the universe revealed by chemistry and physics, however beautiful and awe-inspiring, is meaningless, in the radical sense that it is incapable of meaning. That is, natural science, as most commonly understood, presents the world and our existence as something to which the religious impulse has no application. All we can do, and this is a great deal, is extend our knowledge of what the universe contains and of the laws that govern it,” ibid. 7-8.

“This was not the outlook of religious scientists in the past, who saw themselves as uncovering the wonders of God’s creation. And some modern scientists, like Einstein, have taken a quasi-religious attitude toward the natural order and its intelligibility. But the most common secular attitude, I think, is that once we leave the human scale and move to the largest and most general theories, and ultimately perhaps to a theory of everything, we are in the realm of pure description,” ibid. 8.

“One major intellectual task is to describe how the universe generated creatures that find themselves with the need to make some kind of sense of their lives. But this description itself does not have to make sense in the same way. It can be a purely factual account of how sense-seeking creatures–creatures like us, whose lives are capable of significant senselessness–emerged at a certain level of complexity of organization,” ibid. 8.

“I want now to turn to less dismissive secular responses to the question. The minimalist response is that the universe has nothing to offer that we can use, and that we are thrown back on our own resources. This differs from hardheaded atheism because it doesn’t reject the question but tells us that we have to come to terms with our inability to answer it. We can’t make sense of our lives from the point of view of our place in the universe, and shouldn’t expect this to change even if we learn much more about the natural order. And that leaves a gap–the failure of a natural aspiration,” ibid. 9-10.

“At this point, we may respond with either existentialist despair or existentialist defiance. The latter is particularly well expressed by Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. It consists in making a virtue of the will to go on in spite of the complete indifference of the cosmos–without the kind of sense that religion could give to our lives. Not to be defeated by pointlessness is what gives our lives their point. That is as far as we can go toward living in light of our understanding of everything,” ibid. 10.

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