Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’

Ever since the Enlightenment there’s been a lot of talk about science, mostly about how great it is. The scientific method of observation and hypothesis-forming has lead to innumerable discoveries and advancements in technology of every kind, from industry to medicine. There are T-shirts, now, which read, “Science: it works, bitches.” No doubt it does! I don’t actually think there’s anyone who denies this. But in the great success of the scientific method, I think people got carried away. They started to think that science was “all one needed,” and somehow (I cannot quite discover how) the jump was made from the success of empiricism to total assent in materialism, and the buzzword of “science” permeating through it all. Empiricism raised its banner in defiance of all other truth-claims. “Truly,” its adherents sighed, “with this we can master all things.”

But wait, we have a problem. The problem is that the empirical method of science is not philosophy. Not philosophy? What does philosophy have to do with this? Well, philosophy was the discipline that used to claim the capacity to answer all of life’s questions, and I think its quite safe to conclude that it still firmly sits upon that throne. What I think was not realized was that science was only a sub-discipline of philosophy, only a small specialization of the great study of Reality. Why is that? Because science cannot answer a number of questions about reality. Which ones? Start at 1:10 if you want to cut to it:

The dubious claim is Atkins’, that “science is omnipotent.” Craig shows by counterexample that this statement is obviously false, and I want to dwell on the last one in particular. Whether or not you buy Craig’s example about the Theory of Special Relativity (or even his other examples) is not the issue, the point he raises is profound: The empirical method is entirely circular: it cannot justify itself. Empiricism lays great emphasis on the superiority of its method, because it yields results which we can touch and see. But what does that mean? Essentially, it’s a claim to the superiority of empiricism because its methods yield empirically-verifiable results. One is appealing to empiricism to prove empiricism to be true, and hence becomes entirely circular.

What are we not saying here? No one’s saying that science doesn’t “work.” Of course it does. What we have discovered is that empiricism cannot itself be its own justification, and therefore is not a substantial, self-subsisting worldview, not to mention the number of other things Dr. Craig points out which science lacks the ability to explain. Why? Because those things are not scientific questions. To quote CS Lewis in Mere Christianity,

“Science works by experiments. It watches how things behave. Every scientific statement in the long run, however complicated it looks, really means something like, ‘I pointed the telescope to such and such a part of the sky at 2.20 a.m. on January 15th and saw so-and-so,’ or, ‘I put some of this stuff in a pot and heated it to such-and-such a temperature and it did so-and-so.’ Do not think that I am saying anything against science; I am only saying what its job is.”

And science’s job, we might add, is not to create a self-subsisting worldview or to “achieve omnipotence;” for it cannot, even in potentiality, do either. Those tasks are the duties of Philosophy and the philosopher, to which Science and the scientist must ever be subservient. The last few centuries have shown science to be a usurper; but the time has come for its humbling.


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Huge apologies to my readers, who badger me constantly, and rightly, about the lack of posting in the last few months. As I say every time I update, a lot has been going on with me (things have been pretty tough lately) and though I have a great deal of good things half-written to put up here, I am reduced to copy-pasting my papers in the hopes that they will satisfy  you until I can get something up proper.

Here’s my latest on Sickness Unto Death. It was, actually, sub-par in my opinion because I was forced to go into the essay without a good grasp of Kierkegaard’s conception of the self and I wonder if the paper suffered because of it. The conclusion is something I felt needed another essay on its own, but the Professor wanted mostly summary.

Hope you enjoy.

Sin is the Sickness Unto Death

The inability for human beings to be happy, though they all seem to be trying to achieve that end, is something worth noting, and the great Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard made clear and distinct note of it. He found that the misery in mankind, this inability to “be happy,” stems ultimately from a fundamental despair inherent to the very nature of humanity, something from which there is no escape. And further, that it is precisely the awareness of this problem and the solution to it which Christianity attempts to provide.

We must begin first with the self, as a robust understanding of what the self is and what that means will be fundamental in explaining and demonstrating the universality of despair. The problem begins with the very nature of humanity, which is itself in conflict. “A human being”, Kierkegaard writes, “is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis.”[1] This synthesis arises out of the separate parts of these dualities, and it is these dualities which result in a kind of self-referentialism out of which the Self arises. “The self is a relation that relates itself to itself,” — that is, it is this dialectical tension, the two selves relating to one another — “[…] the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself”[2] – that is, the self arises out of a self-referentialism. Now, with this formulation in mind, that man is a dialectical synthesis, that the self is itself a conflict, we can move into a proper treatment of despair.

Despair arises out of this problem, of this dialectical tension within the very self that makes up the man. The problem lies in the nature of man, and so man despairs of himself. “To despair over oneself, in despair to will to be rid of oneself – this is the formula for all despair.”[3] This is what despair essentially is, and Kierkegaard makes a point to distinguish it from what might be called “depression” as a disease, as something that happens to a person, rather than something which that person is. “[It is not] something that happens to a man, something he suffers, like a disease to which he succumbs, or like death, which is everyone’s fate. No, no, despairing lies in man himself. If he were not a synthesis, he could not despair at all.”[4] Again, the problem lies in what man himself is, and so the solution is to try and escape oneself. But man cannot escape himself, and so is miserable either way. If he wills to be something other than himself, he will despair that he is not that thing which is not himself. But if he reflects on himself, he despairs of himself for being himself! Thus all people are in despair, regardless of what form this despair takes, for man cannot escape despair any more than he can escape himself.

One may object, however, that this is a morbid view of humanity: that all men are not in despair, for we all know many happy, consistent people who enjoy themselves and others, and it would look very much like their natural state would be to be free of despair until some misfortune befell them, and they were mired in despair for some short amount of time until they overcame it, and then proceeded to return to a state free of despair and pursue their normal lives. Kierkegaard says that these people are nevertheless in despair themselves. “Not being in despair, not being conscious of being in despair, is precisely a form of despair.”[5] These people, for whatever else they may do or enjoy, have willed to be something other than themselves because they have not acknowledged the problem of human synthesis, the dialectical tension; just because they may or may not be aware of the fact that they are in despair does not change the fact that they are in despair. This misconception is especially easy to come by, because people who are in this sort of despair (what Kierkegaard call’s “finitude’s despair”[6]) can “very well live on in temporality, indeed, actually all the better, can appear to be a man, be publicly acclaimed, honored, and esteemed [and] be absorbed in all the temporal goals”[7] for the materialism of the world does not make real selfhood a prerequisite for success. “They can use their capacities, amass money, carry on secular enterprises, calculate shrewdly […] perhaps make a name in history,” but, Kierkegaard concludes, “themselves they are not; spiritually speaking, they have no self, no self for whose sake they could venture everything […] however self-seeking they are otherwise.”[8] Precisely because this sort of despair “makes life cozy and comfortable” it is “in no way, of course, regarded as despair”[9] by the world. Playing the world’s game, then, does not solve the problem of the self, and in so far as it seeks to remove one from one’s self, the self remains in despair. Just because it has “mortgaged itself to the world” changes nothing, and it the self may be further from selfhood than before, because, as we said, man cannot escape from himself, but neither has he yet accomplished the task of becoming a self. Despair is never-ending, and “the reason for this is that to despair is a qualification of spirit and relates to the eternal in man. But he cannot rid himself of the eternal – no, never in all eternity. He cannot throw it away once and for all, nothing is more impossible; ”[10]

As it should be clear by now, the self, in trying to escape itself, fails, and therefore, the self does not have the power to free itself from despair. “In spite of all his despair, however, he cannot manage to [free himself]; in spite of all his despairing efforts, that power is the stronger and forces him to be the self he does not want to be.”[11]

The only way to escape despair is to will to be oneself. “The formula that describes the state of the self when despair is completely rooted out is this: in relating itself to itself and in willing to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it.”[12] The reason the self must, in addition to willing to be itself, rest transparently in the power that established, is because “itself” as it is in actuality is a created self, something that “has been established by another”[13], so in willing to be oneself, one must be willing to embrace all aspects of itself, primarily, that it was established by something other than itself. Indeed, this is where the synthesis reaches its most important point, as man’s dual finitude and infinitude are reconciled in God, we can now replace the word “sin” with “despair” and look at the Christian reconciliation through a much clearer lens. Any ideas of “innate” or “original” sin simply refer to the paradoxical state of humanity which by definition is in conflict (in “sin”) and requires reconciliation to the power that established it (“God”) in order to be free of despair (again, “sin”).

The conception of Hell, then, arises as the only alternative for the self, should it choose not to will to become itself. If the self does not freely will to be itself –and therefore to rest transparently in the power that established it– it will go on being in despair, and because the self is spirit and cannot die, then there will never be an end to its suffering. “This […] is precisely the torment, is precisely what keeps the gnawing alive and keeps life in the gnawing, for it is precisely over this that he despairs (not as having despaired): that he cannot consume himself, cannot get rid of himself, cannot reduce himself to nothing.”[14] and because of that, if he does not will to be himself, he will be in torment forever. This is the meaning of the eternal suffering of Hell; not as a place to which people are sent by an angry God, but as a state in which the despairing refuse to be themselves and can never die in their infinite misery.

With Kierkegaard and a correct conception of despair in mind, Christianity takes on a new and clearer meaning: moving beyond the dogma of “us-and-them” lines of argument, away from the persecution of the secular by the religious, indeed, away from the distinction all-together, and into a clear conception of the problem of human angst and misery, and the potential for freedom from sin and despair alike.

Works Cited

Kierkegaard, Søren. Basic Writings of Existentialism, ed. Gordon Marino (New York: Random House Inc., 2004)

[1] Kierkegaard, Søren, Basic Writings of Existentialism, ed. Gordon Marino (New York: Random House Inc., 2004), p. 41

[2] Ibid., 42

[3] Ibid., 49

[4] Ibid., 44

[5] Kierkegaard, Søren, Basic Writings of Existentialism, ed. Gordon Marino (New York: Random House Inc., 2004), p. 52

[6] Ibid., 52

[7] Ibid., 64

[8] Ibid., 65

[9] Ibid., 64

[10] Ibid., 45

[11] Ibid., 49

[12] Ibid., 52

[13] Ibid., 42

[14] Kierkegaard, Søren, Basic Writings of Existentialism, ed. Gordon Marino (New York: Random House Inc., 2004), p. 47

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So the internet is back. Or rather, the internet here in the dorms is no longer at that deceptively slow speed which tempts and promises a loading time of less than twenty minutes but which, like the foul siren it is, fails to deliver the advertised reward.

That said, forgive the skipped week, but today I believe we are going to do something a little differently. You see, come December I will have been blogging diligently here at WordPress for two years, and at no point during that time was I ever aware of who exactly my readership consisted, or what they even enjoyed reading. Thus, for For the next two weeks I will be posting polls to try and gague your readership. I urge you to vote, you countless rogues who come in the night and read without commenting. My stat page does not lie. I know you read, but now is the time to vote!
The poll is secret. I do not know who you are, so vote honestly. The results are visible only to myself, so as not to sway the voter by meta-considerations of the standings of various answers.
But enough words! For your pleasure I present to you this poll.


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The Beginning

Is see no more fitting way than to begin with the words of Aristotle, to set the tone:

“Philosophy begins in wonder.”

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