Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Maverick Philosopher on Man

The Maverick Philosopher has a post on the nature of man, and in particular his destiny, here. He identifies man's nature as problematic because man can soar with the angels, but also grovel with the beasts. With respect to the riddle that is man's nature, he writes:
Kierkegaard solves the problem by way of his dogmatic and fideistic adherence to Christian anthropology and soteriology.  Undiluted Christianity is his answer.  My answer:   live so as to deserve immortality.  Live as if you have a higher destiny.  It cannot be proven, but the arguments against it can all be neutralized.  Man's whence and whither are shrouded in darkness and will remain so in this life.  Ignorabimus. In the final analysis you must decide what to believe and how to live.
You could be wrong, no doubt.  But if you are wrong, what have you lost?  Some baubles and trinkets.  If you say that truth will have been lost, I will ask you how you know that and why you think truth is a value in a meaningless universe.  I will further press you on the nature of truth and undermine your smug conceit that truth could exist in a meaningless wholly material universe.

The argument bears a resemblance to Pascal's Wager, but I think it lacks some of the latter's virtues. For instance, what does it mean to "live so as to deserve immortality"? This implies a real distinction among ways of living; in other words, there is a truth with respect to life. But the Mav explicitly denies the value of truth in the last paragraph. He needs to do this because his argument starts with the premise that man's destiny is shrouded in darkness. (I won't ask if he insists that this premise is true.) But as soon as we've given up on whether we can know the truth about man's destiny, then we've lost any possible ground for offering advice on different ways to live. Thus the Mav can't give any substance to what it means to live so as to "deserve" immortality, and he leaves us with the empty exhortation to live a "higher destiny." Chesterton remarked that philosophers start talking about the "higher" life when they wish to talk about the better and worse, but have denied themselves the possibility of doing so.

The argument is similar to Pascal's insofar as Pascal also does not argue from the truth of Christianity to what man must do here on Earth. But Pascal does require that there is truth with respect to different ways of living. His clincher argument for the Wager is that, whatever happens in the next world, accepting the Wager results in a better life in this one:

Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognise that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing. (233)

Another aspect of the Mav's argument that is interesting is the notion of "deserving" immortality. Atheists sometimes argue against hell that no one can possibly do anything deserving of eternal punishment. The converse of the same point would be that no one can possibly do anything deserving of eternal reward. Indeed, the classical philosophers did not argue that man deserved immortality. Plato argued that man's soul is immortal by nature; his destiny varied according to its just desserts, but it was immortal either way. The Catholic Church also holds the immortality of the soul as a matter that can be philosophically established. But such immortality does not necessarily involve the fullness of life, for man is only fully alive in his body. "Eternal life" for the Catholic means eternal life in the glorified body that is assumed at the general resurrection, and this eternal life certainly cannot be deserved. It is gained only as a gift freely given through the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

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