Saturday, November 22, 2008

History in Front and Behind

I think that I've put my finger on a pervasive assumption here in the U.S. It is that things cannot get as bad as they were in the past.

The camps are closed, we think - at least closed within our borders. (Did you think that there never were any? Research "Andersonville".) There will be no more starvation, we think, no more economic collapse and the terrible want that follows in its wake. There will be no more epidemics that kill millions. There will be no war within our borders. There will no more great and terrible events of the sorts we read about in books of history. We are past all that, we assume.

It is one of my deep convictions - one on which I often dwell - that this simply is not so. (Is this historical blindness something we share with other peoples at other times and places? Perhaps those who know more than me will tell us.) We have no reason to suppose that we live in a privileged era, an era in which there is no history in front but only behind. Calamity is as likely to strike us as it was the Germans or the Russians, the Jews or the Gypsies. Pray to God that you and those about you never have to endure such events. But remain strong in your faith, for you just might.

Religion for the Extreme

Religion must be good not only for the times of prosperity and of joy. It must be good too for times of want and of pain. Religion must be good for the camps.

The camps? Those places where humans have suffered the most, where they have done their worst. If your religion cannot aid you there, throw it out, even if when life is good it seems a help to you.

Is your religion one of health and of prosperity? Does it tell you that those who are favored by God will inevitably prosper? (Such religion is common in the United States.) Throw it out. Many who were no worse than you - indeed many who were better than you - found themselves in the camps. They suffered there. They died there. You might yet find yourself there. If so, your religion will be of no use to you.

Is your religion one of domination and of power? Does it tell you that you are among the favored of God and that it is your right to rule? (The Islam that dominates the news seems to be such.) Throw it out. The mighty have often been brought low. The mighty have often been made to suffer. How will your religion of power and of right benefit you when you fall?

Is your religion one of an inchoate spiritually that has little depth and requires little or nothing of you? (I have friends who profess such a religion. They call themselves spiritual but have little else to say about the matter.) If it is, it would be of no help to you were you confront genuine human evil - the sort of evil that wishes you to suffer and then die, the sort of evil that wishes you to watch your people suffer and die. Throw it out.

Find a religion that can console at the extreme of human endurance. Find a religion that can allow you to raise your head from a wooden plank when you are starved and exhausted. The first (and perhaps the only) test for a religion must lie here. What can it do for the poorest? What can it do for those who suffer? What can it do for those at the moment of death - a premature death, a death in prison, a death from disease, and death after all you love have died. Religion must be religion for the extreme, religion for the worst. If it is not, it is worth nothing.

Time and Loss

I now understand why grandparents so delight in their grandchildren.

They deeply regret the loss of the childhood of their children. I have begun to feel this. My children are now 9, 9 and 7. They are not little any more, and at times I'm deeply sad - sad in a way that I know cannot ever be remedied - that those days are irretrievably gone. There are things now past that can never be had again. Not even God can give us them again, for of absolute necessity the past is past and will remain forever past. A strange thought, this - a lack, an absence, that not even God can make better.

The flow of time involves loss. Perhaps it brings new goods, but it leaves behind very great goods that one can never retrieve.

Pray To Do

Do not pray for the ability to do.

Do not pray for the desire to do.

Pray that you will do, for ultimately it matters not that one was able or that one desired but rather that one did.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Aporia of Sin

Those who know my views will recall that I believe sin to result from spiritual immaturity. The world is a classroom, and pain its primary mode of instruction.

But for a moment I began to doubt that this is so. Let me explain.

There are men and women who seem to sin in full knowledge of what they do; and among such, there are many who are quite wicked. They murder. They rape. They steal. They enslave. How can we attribute this to mere immaturity? To do so seems to miss the very sinfulness of sin. Sin is terrible, but it is sometimes chosen though it is known to be terrible. How can the claim that sin results from spiritual immaturity capture this fact? It seems to me that it cannot.

But if sin is not a result of spiritual immaturity, what then is it? The one response that seems possible is this: sin is deliberate rebellion against a God who is known to be God. This does seem to capture the sinfulness of sin. It does not reduce it to mere ignorance. It makes it out to be what it is - odious and destructive.

But sin-as-rebellion in turn seems an impossible view. For how can we possibly explain rebellion against God when it is known that it is God against whom one rebels? If one knows that one rebels against God, one must know that one will lose. One must know that one will suffer. One must know that there is nothing that to be gained and everything to be lost. Thus to suppose that sin is rebellion against a God who is known to be God seems a psychological impossibility. We would never chose to do that which could not benefit us in any way.

Here then is our aporia: embrace sin-as-spiritual-immaturity and miss the very sinfulness of sin, or embrace sin-as-rebellion and make the genesis of sin absolutely inexplicable.

At present, I do not see my way out of this bind.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Faith in Reason, Pt. 2

In Part 1 of Faith in Reason, I said that, if I were asked to explain my Christian belief, I would begin with the impotence of reason to answer the questions that it sets for itself.

But I expect that critics will respond thus:

Let's say we agree that reason is impotent in the way you think. But from this nothing about the truth of Christianity follows. If reason is impotent, we must be skeptics about the big questions - the purpose of life, God's existence and the rest.

I certainly do agree that, from the impotence of reason alone, Christianity does not follow. But where reason cannot see, another faculty begins to discern the outlines of a greater truth. At times, I call this "the heart". Others call it "the conscience". There is within us a capacity to discern moral truth, a capacity that cannot be reduced to reason or to emotion alone. It is, I believe, sui generis - unique in kind. Where reason is silent, it speaks.

It speaks in me. It always spoke in me. When I was still a materialist and an atheist, my most deeply held convictions were moral. I believed that all persons were of equal worth, that the interests of all were of equal importance, and the root of evil was the denial of this.

This I still believe. I don't think that this conviction admits of rational proof. But I do no think that it needs proof. Nor do I think that my conviction is simply a way that I feel. It is genuine belief - genuine knowledge I would say. The equality of worth is, in itself, quite clear and quite obvious; and that by which I discern its truth is the conscience, is the heart.

So here then is my view. Reason is impotent. Mere emotion is not adequate to the task of discernment of moral truth; emotion does not yield knowledge. In the space that is left when reason and emotion retreat, conscience speaks; and it directs us to the truth.

How does this link up with Christianity? Over time, I have come to the opinion that Christianity best articulates what conscience first revealed to me. So it isn't that Christianity follows from the impotence of reason. Rather it's that, when reason knows its place and is silent where it cannot lead, another (and I should think better) faculty can speak; and if thought through, Christianity is the inevitable end.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Faith in Reason, Pt. 1

Once I had faith in reason. I though that it could unravel the riddles of life, that it could give certainty about life's purpose and God's existence (to name only two).

But that faith has slipped away over time. Reason, I now believe, is largely impotent if it works on its own. (At least it is impotent when it consider the great questions. About the lesser questions - What do I have for dinner? What's the chemical composition of table salt? - it seems adequate to its task.) Why believe this? My experience of the conclusions of the philosophers.

Here's what I mean. On any issue of any importance (life's purpose, God's existence, etc.), philosophers always, always come down on different sides. (I used to joke to my students that, about any philosophical issue at all, some philosophers say p, some say not-p, some say that we cannot know whether p or not-p, and some say that it was a pseudo-issue to begin.) But this isn't because some are better informed or more intelligent than the rest. Rather, philosophers who disagree are, as a rule, equally well-informed and equally intelligent.

Now, consider your own philosophical conclusions in this light. (I do mine.) Let us say that you have come to the conclusion (Descartes' and Plato's conclusion) that the mind is a non-physical substance. Some philosophers agree. Some disagree. But those that disagree are no less capable philosophers than are you. (This is an irrefutable empirical fact. I can be easily seen if you will but open your eyes.) Their view is just as well-informed, their arguments just as powerful.

Now, which of you is most likely to be right? Of course, since your views contradict, at most one of you is right. But which? It seems obvious to me that you are just as likely to be wrong as your opponent. Your and your opponent are equally likely to have made some subtle mistake that vitiates your argument. (We can say this at least about the philosophers - where they make mistakes, they make subtle ones.) But if this is so, it seems that one can have little faith in the cogency of one's own arguments. They might be good, they might not; and at present (and it would seem into the indefinite future as well) there is no way to know which it is.

Consider this too. Likely you have come to believe that some argument you once thought cogent really is not. I've done this a number of times. I once thought that mind was material, and thought that my arguments for this compelled assent. I now think precisely the opposite. Mind is immaterial, the arguments for its materiality are flawed, and the arguments for its immateriality are quite strong. Now, what is the probability that I'll do such an about-face in the future about this or some other issue? Surely it isn't negligible. Indeed I think it great enough that one must take the possibility of an about-face seriously. But if this is so, any claim to knowledge is vitiated. If once can be forced by reason to abandon a view that reason once led one to accept, one does not know.

My conclusion is this: the pervasiveness of philosophical dispute (and of change in philosophical opinion) makes philosophical knowledge impossible.

But what is the method of the philosophers? Reason unaided. No appeals to authority, just reason and reason alone. But then we must say that reason unaided is impotent to settle the issues that it sets itself.

If asked, this would be one of the many explanations I'd give of my conversion to Christianity. Reason can't answer the vital questions of my life. Christianity can, and does.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Evil's Source

No one that I know - certainly no one that I take at all seriously - believes that the world is now or ever has been as it should be. But though we all agree upon that - that the world always could have been better than in fact it was - we do no agree upon why this is so. When we wish to speak of those parts or aspects of the world that makes it less good than it might have been, let us use the word "evil". Something evil, then, is something that, in some way or other, is not optimal. It is something that falls short, something that might have been better. So then we all agree that the world does now, and has always, contained evil; but we do not agree upon evil's source. Let us focus upon the evil that we humans do. Call this "artifact evil" or AE for short. (A good word for this is "sin", but some might not agree to its use, for it is a religious term.) Examples of AE: rape, murder, hatred, jealousy, spite, neglect of those in our care, genocide, slavery, racism, sexism, etc. Each is human, and each is evil. There are, I believe, two sorts of explanation of the genesis of AE in the world. One makes individual AE primary, the other makes group AE primary. Let me explain.

Individual AE

Here the root cause of all AE is said to lie in the individual human heart. It is there that evil is first conceived, and it is there from which evil action springs. As Solzhenitsyn said, the line that divides good from evil runs through the human heart. The one who holds this view need not deny the existence of group AE. The racism inculclated in the youth of the South when I was young might be a example, for it seems that this racism was spread across an entire culture and that this culture perpetuated its racism in the education of its young. But though one who holds that the root cause of AE is individual need to deny the existence of group evil, she will insist that, if one traces backward to time to the source of this group evil, one will find the individual human heart, corrupted by its love of that which is evil. Christianity is, I take it, wedded to an individualistic account of the source of AE. There is much in the story of humanity's fall in Genesis that is not true if read literally. But there is a nugget of truth in the story that Christianity must embrace, and it is that first one individual, and then another (and after them all humanity) turned freely against God and thus brought evil into the world. AE, says Christianity, has its source in an individual decision and individual action. Thus did evil enter the world, and thus now does it infect all of humanity. Note a consequence of this for how we are to conceive of the individual. The individual is prior to any group of which she is part. Her identity - that which at bottom she is - is not formed by the societal relations that bind us to one another. Rather the individual exists first - first in thought, first in action- and from this societal relations spring.

Group AE

Here the root cause of all AE is said to lie in culture, class, race, gender - in general, in group identity. Here the line that divides good from evil is the very line that divides group from group. When in The Communist Manifesto Marx tells us that the history of every society heretofore has been the history of class struggle, he makes quite clear how we are to conceive of the individual and of AE. The identity of the individual is derivative from the class of which he is part. I am the man that I am because I am a man of this class. Class first, individual after. Because of this, AE must too have its root cause in group identity. At bottom, it is not this or that human who is evil. Rather at bottom this or that group is evil (and by this we are likely to mean that it oppresses or otherwise mistreats other groups over which it has power), and the evil done by the individuals within it derives from their group identity.


Since Individual AE and Group AE differ so fundamentally about the cause of AE, one should expect that they will differ about how to put things right; and they do. Individual AE calls for the transformation of the human heart. (As John Lennon so wisely said, "when you tell me that it's the institution, well you know you better free your mind instead.") Only then, it says, can societal justice be achieved. Group AE on the contrary calls for societal transformation first, and holds that this is the only way to achieve the good of the individual. Individual AE does not see societal upheaval as necessary to address AE (though it might think this helpful at times). Group AE does. For it, evil can be overcome only if society is reformed - if, for instance, the slave-owner is made to free the slave. Indeed it is common among those who hold to Group AE that revolution - the violent overthrow of oppressor groups - is necessary to the abolition of AE. I know where my allegiance lies. I am Christian and with Solzhenitsyn hold that evil has its source in the individual human heart. Transform the heart and justice will follow. Seek justice without a transformation of the human heart and revolution will come to naught (indeed it will likely breed more evil than existed before).

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Natural and the Good

I'm skeptical that the concept of the natural as commonly understood can lie at the foundation of ethics. For that common idea of the natural is that it is what at present occurs always or for the most part. But we live in a fallen world, and much that now seems quite natural because of its frequency cannot be as God intended. Examples:

1. Sin itself. It is now ubiquitous. But (needless to say) it is not for that reason natural. It is profoundly unnatural.

2. All the many specific types of sin. Anger is quite common, as are selfishness and pride. But as with all sin, they are unnatural.

3. All the many institutions created to bring a measure of order to a sinful world. Are jails natural? I'll grant that they are inevitable given the ruin wrougt by sin. But they are not for that reason natural. Rather they are a necessary means to mitigate with the dangers of sinful and thus unnatural humanity.

4. Death. Scripture and Tradition teach us that death is a result of sin. Thus it inherits the unnaturalness of sin.

Questions remain, of course. If to find what's natural we cannot simply examine the world about us, how are we to know what it is? If the natural is not what occurs always or for the most part, just what is it? I'll take up these questions in a later post.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


Solzhenitsyn says this in Vol. 2 of The Gulag Archipelago:
[T]he ways of the Lord are imponderable. [W]e ourselves never know what we want. [H]ow many times in my life [have] I passionately sought what I did not need and been despondent over failures which were successes. (501, "The Muses in Gulag")
Profound truth! We chase after goals that we have set for ourselves (or perhaps goals that wider society has set for us and we pretend to have set for ourselves) and count as success when we meet them and failure when we do not.

Our children are told again and again to follow their dreams, to passionately pursue that which they most desire.

But this assumes that we are good judges of what we ought to pursue, that we can rightly distinguish those desires which are worthy from those that are not. But we are not good judges of this. Much that we desire we ought not desire, and much that would be good for us if we had it we do not desire.

What is your goal? Wealth? Money is but a means to an end, and to set it up as the end of one's life is thus profoundly mistaken. Power? Power corrupts (or rather feeds the innate corruption that is our inheritance from Adam). Fame? The world is foolish, and only a fool seeks fame among fools.

Be careful what you pursue, and do not assume at present that you know what you ought to do.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


At present I'm half-way through volume two of Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago. It's among the best books that I've ever read, and is perhaps the very best of the prolonged accounts of the varieties of evil that I've ever encountered.

At one point, Solzhenitsyn says something quite remarkable about the imprisonment of orthodox Communists in the gulag. Consignment to the gulag, he says, is to be expected - even for most orthodox of Communists - because the government that created it, and the ideology that drives it, is a human idol. By this, I take him to mean that it's a purely human creation in which humans nonetheless put their faith.

Let me reflect for a moment about this. It seems to me to hint at a profound truth. We humans are ruined beings. We come into the world with an in-born disposition to evil (a disposition that, I think, derives from a disproportionate love of self), and that disposition inevitably makes itself known. We do evil, all of us. Moreover, if we cut ourselves off from God - who is Christ has made possible our salvation, our rescue from ruin - we are inevitably lost. But this is just what the Communists did. They denied God's existence - they were, of course, materialists - and instead put their trust in a purely human ideology. Moreover, they put their trust is the ability of their leaders to implement that ideology. Thus they set themselves on the path of ruin. Fallen humanity, when it trusts in itself and itself alone, removes all checks upon its in-born disposition to evil and thus falls upon itself as the wolf falls upon the lamb. Death and destruction are the inevitable result.

Whenever humanity turns from God and trusts in itself and itself alone, Stalins are the result.

(A word of caution here. Recall that I'm a latitudinarian when it comes to faith in God. One's orientation to God - whether acceptance or rejection - is, as I say here, indicated by one's moral character. The good accept Him; the evil reject. Thus those who accept him need not accept him by name. I do believe that, in the life to come, the good will come to know that their goodness entailed an implicit acceptance of Him; but they need not know that now. This seems quite evident to me. There are many good non-Christians.)

What is it to be Human?

One might ask for a biological definition. I propose a spiritual one.

To be human is to orient oneself - to take an attitude towards - the infinite. One might reject its existence. One might embrace it. One might align oneself with it. One might rebel. But no matter what one does, one does something, and this something serves to fix what at bottom one is. Those who are good align with it; those who are evil rebel. But no matter if it is a pole from which we flee or a pole to which we flee, it is the pole around with our lives revolve.

This gets to the root of my objection to materialism. It makes us out to be much smaller than we in fact are. It would seek to reduce us to just a bit of matter. It would seek to say that our existence is circumscribed by a tiny little bit of space-time.

But we are more than this. We can know - indeed we can some into fundamental accord with - the infinite, and this shows that there's something of the infinite in us. (For as the Greeks knew, only like can know like.)

Yes, we are embodied. Yes, we carve out a path through space-time (both the individual and the species). But our boundaries are greater than that. We can reach out in thought and in emotion to the infinite source of our being, and there we can find rest.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

From Nothing Nothing Comes: Objections

In a prior post - a post in which I rehearsed a version of the so-called Cosmological Argument - I promised to return later and consider objections. I'll list all the objections of which I know. Any suggestions about how to supplement my list are most welcome. Some are from Hume. Some are from the good doctor. Some are my own invention.

I'll add to the list as new objections occur to me.

1. If one thinks that there's a need to posit a necessary being, one might as well assume that the sum of all so-called contingent beings (and this sum is perhaps simply the material universe) is itself necessary. If one does this, there is no need to posit an entity outside that sum and thus there is no need to posit any kind of god.

2. The term "necessary" is applicable only to propositions, and when applied to one the result is true just when that proposition is a conceptual or logical truth. (An example of the former: triangles are polygons. An example of the latter: either triangles are trilaterals, or they are not.) Thus one simply cannot say of some entity or other that it is necessary. "God necessarily exists" is, in all strictness, nonsense.

3. To explain the existence of the sum of all contingent beings, one only need explain each contingent entity individually. But to explain a contingent entity individually, one need only cite a prior contingent entity that brought it into existence. Thus contingency suffices to explain contingency by an unbroken chain of cause of effect that leads back infinitely in time.

4. Causes must precede their effects in time. Thus if one speaks of a cause of the universe (and this I do attempt to do in my argument), one must assume that that cause exists prior to it. But time is itself merely a feature, or an aspect, of the universe. Thus nothing can exist prior to the universe. The upshot: the universe cannot have a cause.

5. The argument assumes the truth of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. (The PSR says this: for every state of affairs that obtains, there exists a sufficient explanation of the fact that it obtains.) But science has shown that the PSR is false. There are certain quantum events - like for instance the decay of a radioactive atom - for which there exists no sufficient reason (at least no sufficient reason to explain why they occurred just when they did). Moreover, there is no prima facie absurdity in the denial of the PSR; and indeed there is no way for the defender of the Cosmoligical Argument to prove its truth. Thus an objector is quite free to assume that it does not hold universally.

Why Do I Write?

It's curious - I don't know why I write.

I don't write for recognition. I know that I'll get little of that.

I don't write because I'm convinced of the truth of what I say and feel that I must share that truth with the world.

I don't write simply because I find it pleasurable. (On occasion, I'm infuriated by it.)

But I do feel a need to write. It is at present my sole creative outlet, and for a reason that I don't at all understand, this is important to me.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Science and its Relation to Philosophy

Revolutions in science - like that one replaced Newtonian absolutism with Einsteinian relativity - seem to have profound consequences for our view of the world. Before Einstein, both time and space were absolute; after both were relative. Before Darwin, species were changeless, and there were no relations of descent among species; after species were in constant flux (whether quick or slow), and all present species arose from other prior species.

But are revolutions in science over? Has the last already come and gone? I doubt it. Let us consider the case of physics. It is now dominated by two theories - Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics. The former comes into play in investigations of the very big, and the latter in investigations of the very small. But as of yet they have not been integrated into a single comprehensive theory, and thus the search for the so-called Grand Unified Theory continues on.

If GUT ever arrives (and this of course is a very real possibility) we should expect it to effect a significant change in our view of the world. (Why? Scientific revolutions have done this is the past, thus we should expect them to do the same in the future. A very simply inductive inference, this.) Thus I think it quite risky to take present physics and attempt to derive from it a philosophical view of the world, for it's a very real possibility that that view will be overturned.

Of course I mean to speak only of the present situation. It seems possible to me that, at some future time, there will be no cleavages in scientific theory of the sort that divides RT from QM. Perhaps at some future time there will emerge a single, unified theory that explains all phenomena, and if this should come to pass, science might well serve as a firm foundation for philosophical argument. But we are not there yet, and so I find it unlikely that present science is such a firm foundation. Philosophy must assert its independence of science until such time as the house of science is put in good order.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

From Nothing Nothing Comes

I've begun to think in greater depth about a certain argument for God's existence. It is often called the Cosmological Argument, and it concerns the source of contingent being.

Contingent being, let us say, is the sum of all things whose existence is not necessary. It is, then, the sum of all things that, though they exist, might yet not have existed. I am part of this sum, as are you. I might have failed to exist, and so too might have you. God and the number two (if such objects there be), on the other hand, are not contingent. If they exist, they cannot not have existed.

I take it as obvious that there's such a thing as contingent being. So let us take its existence for granted and inquire into the source of its existence. A number of possibilities present themselves. (1) There is no source of contingent being. (2) There is a source of contingent being, and that source is itself contingent. (3) There is a source of contingent being, and that source is a necessary being (or beings).

These three possibilities seem both exclusive and exhaustive.

2 can be ruled out immediately. For if there is a source of contingent being and that source is itself contingent, then it must be its own source, for contingent being includes all contingent beings. But I think it obvious that nothing that has a cause of its being can be the cause of its own being.

So that leaves us with possibilities 1 and 3. Let us consider 1. It would have us say that the existence of contingent being is a great accident, a great random event for which no explanation at all can be given. Now, I do not think that I can conclusively establish that such a thing cannot be, but to say that contingent being has no explanation at all seems quite ridiculous.

Let us say that you sit at your desk, as do I. The house begins to shake. A pencil rolls off your desk and hits the floor. Might it be that there's no explanation at all for these events? Would you be content with the supposition that these events had no cause at all? Of course not. You'd search for a cause (earthquake perhaps) and you'd not be content until you'd found it. If it should come to pass that you couldn't find a cause, you'd still be certain that there was one. There just has to be some reason why the house shook. It didn't just happen.

But if that couldn't just happen, why think that contingent being could just happen? Indeed it would seem to be an even greater absurdity to assume that all of contingent being could just happen. (I suspect that those who reject the Cosmological Argument ignore there own common-sense insistence that the events they encounter must have causes. Like the rest of us, they assume the existence of causes of all they encounter, but for a reason that remains opaque to me, they hold that it's quite rational to give up this common-sense belief when it's brought to bear in a certain argument for God's existence. Two-faced, say I.)

Thus we must reject the claim that contingent being has no source at all. But that leaves us with but one possibility - that the source of contingent being lies in necessary being. Of course we're not yet at the conclusion that God exists. There exists quite a gap between the claims

There is necessary being


God exists

But the conclusion that there exists necessary being is still of great interest. It as it were opens the door to theism.

Next time: reply to objections.

Sunday, April 06, 2008


Culture is not something easily achieved. If left on their own, children will not be fit to carry it on and will suffer horrendously when it collapses. But how are we to make them fit to carry it on? Here we must never forget that children are a mix - a mix of nascent good and of nascent evil. The good must be nurtured, the evil extinguished.

Education today (at least public education in the U.S.) seems to foster only the former. Indeed the assumption seems to be that, if we but do the former well enough, all discipline problems will disappear. This is simply false, and until strict discipline is again introduced into the home and the school, education in the U.S. will continue its long slow decline. Teacher and parent and must be, above all else, instructors in virtue, and to do this they must compel students to act virtuously even when then do not wish to do so.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Fear of Death

It would seem that we should not fear death. For either we survive death, or we do not. If we do not, then after death we simply do not exist and thus can suffer nothing. But of course if there is no possibility that we suffer, there is nothing to fear. If, on the other hand, we do survive death, there might well be something after death that should be feared. But even if this is so, it is not death that should be feared. Rather it is that which follows.

(I grant that one might well fear the pain that so often accompanies death. But we must distinguish that fear from the fear of death. Fear of pain that accompanies death is not itself fear of death.)

This argument seems decisive to me. It seems to decisively prove that there is nothing in death to fear. But yet the fear of death persists. I feel it, as do most others. Why is this? What is the source of this deep-seated irrationality? I have a suggestion. It is that we are not are own, that there are forces in us that use of for purposes that extend past the boundaries of our lives. If we were solely our own, if all our desires concerned only ourselves and our ends, we would not fear death. But if there is something greater than us, something outsides us that uses us for a purpose greater than that of the individual human life, then it might have implanted in us a fear of frustration of that greater purpose. I think that the fear of death is such a thing. The higher purpose concerns our species. It is, in a word, the health of that species. The species is in us in a way that is now obscure to me. It uses us for its own ends. It uses us to insure its own health. Thus it makes us fear death, for once dead we cannot serve it.

A strict individualism on which we are concerned only with our own little lives is simply false. (Indeed it is perhaps necessarily false.) We are more than ourselves, and this is reflected in our most deeply seated desires. Human being is not being unto death. It is rather being past death. The human essence looks past the end of the individual human life to the life of the species of which it's part.