Archive for the ‘Skepticism’ Category


February 11, 2013 Leave a comment

It’s been a while between articles posts, let’s get straight into it:

Philosophy Bites – Links to the First 176 Episodes -Edmonds and Warburton.

LCA 2013: distributed democracy, speaking stacks, links -Sky Croeser.

Anti-Muslim hysteria in Australia -Russell Glasser.

We get email: Believers and their security blankets -Martin Wagner.

The Argument from “It Just Makes Sense to Me”

Atheist Arrested for Blasphemy, and How You Can Help

Mail bin: arguing with the FAQ

Good luck in Somalia– Ophelia Benson.

Egyptian atheist facing blasphemy sentence – Jacob Fortin.

Repairs under way -Ophelia Benson.

A fabulous “Manly Meal”-Ophelia Benson.

WL Craig on Morality and Meaning (Series Index) -John Danaher.

My Favourite Posts of 2012 -John Danaher.

Sexual Objectification: An Atheist Perspective -Richard Carrier.

Prototypical Sexist Atheist on Exhibit– Richard Carrier.

Atheism+ : The Name for What’s Happening-Richard Carrier.

Waldron on pornography -Russell Blackford.

Gay Bishop Comes Up With the Worst Argument to Support Same-Sex Marriage– Greta Christina.

My Letter to the Boy Scouts– Greta Christina.

Same-Sex Marriage Opponents Increasingly Desperate and Stupid – Greta Christina.

String of atheism signs vandalized, no real action taken by officials – Jacob Fortin.

Catholic Priest blames women for bringing violence on themselves – Jacob Fortin.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews harass sexually abused girl – Jacob Fortin.

Bill O’Reilly calls David Silverman a Fascist – Jacob Fortin.

Top 10 anti-Christian acts of 2012 -J.T Eberhard.

Most insulting fundraiser ever. – J.T Eberhard.

Don’t Say Gay legislator: being gay is like shooting heroin. -J.T Eberhard.

74 years of female slave labor in the 20th century, courtesy of the Catholic Church. – J.T Eberhard.

How often god’s moral decrees bear no resemblance to justice. -J.T Eberhard.

Gay friends? Me dear? How very dare you! You’re mistaking me for Muhammad – Barry Duke.

Investigation launched over nurse who allegedly told a family to put their trust in Allah – Barry Duke.

Only fools and Christians: ‘Born-again’ Tennessee man quits job over 666 tax code – Barry Duke.

Catholic meddling appears to have delayed Boy Scouts of America’s decision on gay inclusion – Barry Duke.

Danish police on the hunt for a gunman who tried to kill Islam critic Lars Hedegaard – Barry Duke.

Brazilian pastor is behind bars after telling his flock that his penis contained ‘holy milk’ – Barry Duke.

Another devastating week for the RC Church as more of its criminality is exposed – Barry Duke.

Craig’s Argument for God from Intentionality – Philosotroll.

Witch Hunts in Papua New Guinea – Leo Igwe.

Randal Rauser on William Lane Craig’s defense of the Canaanite genocide -Chris Hallquist.

More Powerpoint Slides from a Christian Pastor’s Anti-Gay Sermon – Hermant Mehta.

Woman Brutally Murdered in Papua New Guinea After Being Accused of Sorcery – Hermant Mehta.

Christians in Indiana Unite to Create a Prom That Gay Students Can’t Attend – Hermant Mehta.

Virginia Senate Approves Bill Allowing College Groups to Discriminate Based On Religious Beliefs -Hermant Mehta.

Who Still Thinks the Church Has Any Moral Credibility? -Hermant Mehta.

Christian Pastor: I’d Rather Experience Chinese Water Torture Than Listen to a Woman Argue With Me – Hermant Mehta.

Shells and switches -Deacon Duncan.

God and the PlayStation 3 -Deacon Duncan.

The Gypsy Curse -Deacon Duncan.

Religions will never be satisfied — they will always up the ante until they are in charge -Eric MacDonald.


Postmodernism And Science – Pt: 1.

August 14, 2012 Leave a comment

For the moment, let us take a second out of our discussion on Feminism, or rather, Bell Hooks’ view of such, and take a very brief look at Postmodernism (here after “PoMo”), particularly in relation to science. Recently I read The Cambridge Companion to Postmodernism, 2004 (I recommend the Cambridge Companion series on just about any topic they have, they’re a great resource for interpreting complex authors and movements – for a look at what they have to offer, see here) and although many of the chapters were interesting, and indeed deserve a more, shall we say, ‘interested’ review and critique than that which will be presented here, I will only be looking at, and discussing Ursula K. Heise’s chapter, entitled ‘Science, technology, and postmodernism’ today.

Heise states that scientific knowledge and technological rationality have been “seriously challenged” by PoMo modes of thought that have been developed in philosophy, history, sociology and cultural study and are fundamentally critical of certain social institutions and traditions of thought, based on a skepticism toward “Enlightenment assumptions about subjectivity, knowledge, and progress.” (p. 136) Heise says the critique of PoMo attempted to show that science and technology’s  “narratives of progress and mastery of nature” are not “unequivocally positive forces”. (p. 136)

The postmodern moment, then, is characterized by two distinct tendencies with regard to science and technology. On the one hand, scientific insights and technological applications are advancing at a more rapid pace than ever, and some of their more spectacular developments have changed the material environment and a vast range of values, beliefs, and expectations, along with the meaning of the words “science”, and “technology” for average citizens. On the other hand, science and technology are met with ambivalence, skepticism, or resistance not only because of soe undesirable “side effects” their rapid evolution has generated, but in terms of some of their most basic assumptions about nature, progress, human observation, appropriate methodologies for creating knowledge, and the role this knowledge should play in public policies. (Heise, pp. 137-8, Science, technology, and postmodernism, Ed. Steven Connor, 2004)

Although the notion of PoMo technologies is one of two undercurrents in Heise’s thesis and is an interesting one, deserving of its own blog, it is her second thesis , the substantiation of scientific knowledge, or “crisis of legitimation” that I wish to look at today. Heise states that skepticism toward the tide of progress, from a historical perspective led to a parallel questioning of the justification of many modern institutions: “in particular, it led to historians and philosophers to postulate a crisis in legitimation of science as one of the pillars of western thought and society.” (p. 148) Specifically Heise refers to such PoMo authors as Jean-Francois Lyotard who argued that the pursuit of scientific knowledge in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries began to lose its force in the early twentieth century due to a lack of support for the “narratives” that had served to legitimate it. Two factors are noted;  namely the Hegelian idea “that the human spirit itself progresses over the course of history, and that the expansion of knowledge is one of the most visible forms of this knowledge.” and the other is the “Enlightenment belief that the acquisition of knowledge contributes to the liberation and emancipation of individuals and communities.” (p 148)  Lyotard argued contra to these ideals, viz. Wittgenstein that science has disintegrated into highly specialized research projects that contain very little communication with each other, that contemporary science is no longer a unified truth-seeking pursuit of knowledge but rather a disconnected series of “language games”

… in which facts no longer count, but only ‘performativity”, instrumental functioning. As critics of Lyotard have pointed out, this account falls far short of a convincing portrayal of contemporary science. Perhaps for this reason, his argument did not provoke any great resonance among scientists at the time of its publication, but it became enormously popular among scholars in the humanities and social sciences who saw its argument about the demise of large-scale metanarratives of legitimation as a defining feature of postmodernism across a whole range of sociocultural phenomena, (Heise, p. 148, Science, technology, and postmodernism, Ed. Steven Connor, 2004)

Heise goes on to discuss the growing “controversy” among philosophers, sociologists and natural scientists over the basic nature and function of scientific knowledge, but one really has to wonder how much controversy there is amongst those versed in the methods, protocols and theory of the scientific method. This also presents what is most interesting to me regarding PoMo, questions of legitimization are important (although the metaphysical nature of such an approach would more than likely be scorned by those same PoMo theorists, perhaps an internal contradiction in their reasoning?), only when we are exposed to possible weaknesses in theories can we plug them. But as we see with Lyotard above, the critique does not always seem fair, or even particularly educated in the “narrative” of science.

Heise states that critics of science have argued that the scientific method and knowledge have no special cognitive status, and like many other epistemological tools cannot be separated from its sociocultural context, which limits its claims to objectivity and universality. But the critics go further than this though, and state that all knowledge is socially constructed. Moreover, that scientific research is not “value-neutral, as its advocates maintain, but that fundamental beliefs and even ideological assumptions are hardwired into the definition, goals and procedures of scientific inquiry” (p. 150) Heise goes on to say that this assumption has worked to serve dominant social groups at the expense of knowledge to the “common people”, although Heise does not state exactly what the critics of science mean by this assertion, or even that this assertion can be demonstrated with any degree of certainty or reliability.

As Heise accurately states, and as you may be able to tell from the above paragraph, the advocates of science responded with the charge of relativism, and have defended

… the specificity of scientific knowledge, and the stringent procedures as well as logical and empirical controls that are applied to establish the validity of a particular knowledge claim. These procedures, they argue, account for both the changing character of scientific knowledge and its gradual progress in the understanding of nature. (Heise, p. 151, Science, technology, and postmodernism, Ed. Steven Connor, 2004)

The critique continued basing its method largely around Thomas Kuhn’s work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, they viewed it “as a point of departure”, they considered science as an activity rooted in “particular sociohistorical and cultural contexts” , which derives its authority from social consensus not from any privileged grasp of reality or verification/falsification of hypotheses through empirical findings or replication of results by independent researchers. To get around the obvious charge of relativism (that always seems to follow PoMo) of their so-called “social constructivism” the critics stated that

… it is possible to admit that science is socially conditioned in multiple ways without giving up the claim that science’s particular set of social constructions provides a type of access to the natural world that is more accurate or successful from a cognitive or explanatory perspective, than other constructions. (Heise, p. 151, Science, technology, and postmodernism, Ed. Steven Connor, 2004)

Moreover Heise states that scientists would agree with this statement, that some “dimensions” of scientific inquiry are dependent on “social and historical circumstance”, for example in general areas and specific topics which are deemed worthy of research, or in grant giving, and how well the results are disseminated to the public all depend, Heise states, on “a particular societies structure of interest.” (p. 151) This of course seems to ignore the fact that there is no European science, or American science, or for that matter, Muslim, or Christian science, there is only verifiable, reproducible science. What is discovered and verified by the Chinese, can be peer-reviewed (and indeed, should) by anyone else. The results of scientific inquiry go to everyone – Heise’s view of science seems narrow, and self-serving.

As this post is getting long, and there is still some involved subject matter to cover, we may like to leave it here for now, and wrap up our discussion on Heise in part two.


Heise, U. K. (2004). ‘Science, technology, and postmodernism’, in  S Connor (Ed) The Cambridge Companion to Postmodernism, New York. Cambridge University Press. Pp. 136, 137-8, 148, 150, 151.

Lecture Series: Pt 3 – Descartes’ Fourth, Fifth And Sixth Meditations.

March 20, 2012 1 comment

Fourth meditation: Truth and falsity

In this meditation Descartes seeks to confirm his conclusions in the third meditations, with a discussion on truth, he reasons that the idea within him of God, not only confirms his existence as a thinking thing, but also confirms that there must be a referent, outside his mind,  in reality called God. In every case of trickery or deception, even if we assume it requires power to do so, this power could not come from God (as he is benevolent). Moreover Descartes power of reasoning, of judgement, comes from God, and God would not wish to deceive him (nor could he). This does lead Descartes to think however, if all that Descartes is comes from God, how could he possibly have any faulty reasoning? To solve this dilemma Descartes reasons that when looking at God, and seeing an example of perfection, he then looks at himself to see an example of imperfection, and this answers the question. Only in a being such as Descartes who is imperfect could faulty reasoning occur, not in, or from God, but as a result of a defect in Descartes. Still unsatisfied however Descartes reasons that this answer is not wholly sufficient, for the same question still applies – if Descartes is created by the perfection that is God, then why would God create his creation, imperfect? How could he? After all, “however more skilled the craftsman, the more perfect the work produced by him” as Descartes says (p.38)

To answer this dilemma Descartes asks himself if it is indeed better that he should make mistakes than that he should not? He reasons that there is no cause for surprise that he cannot comprehend God’s reasons for not distilling in him the means to under God’s purposes, for God is immense and powerful and is able to comprehend many causes beyond Descartes comprehension. Descartes also begs we take a look at the universe as a whole, so that we might see the complete perfection, instead of merely looking at one example of supposed ‘imperfection’. Ultimately Descartes reasons that he can not think of any reason to prove that God ought to have given him greater faculties of knowledge than he did, no matter how skilled God may be at creation it is not necessary that he create Descartes with all the perfections present in himself.

What then is the cause of Descartes mistake in reasoning? The answer? “The scope of the will is wider than that of the intellect” (p. 40), but instead of restricting it to its limits Descartes use his will to stretch it into matters to which he does not understand, and since the will cares not for truth or falsity, that becomes the source of his error. This privation of the will comes from Descartes, who operates said will, not from God, who does not operates Descartes will.

Fifth mediation: The essence of material things and the existence of God considered a second time

In this meditation Descartes turns his attention back to the existence of God, by discussing essences. Beginning with the Platonic example of a triangle – Descartes explains that even if a triangle never existed outside his thoughts, there would still be a ‘determinate’ nature, or ‘essence’ of the triangle which is immutable and eternal, which is not invented by him or dependent on him. We can discover this truth about the triangle from the objective fact that we know triangles must necessarily contain three angles, two right angles etc. Since these are properties independent of Descartes, that he must recognize whether he wants to or not, demonstrate that they could not be invented by him.  Similarly it is the same with God, whose nature of eternal existence, is the same as a number or shape, ,when he demonstrates it has some necessary category that belongs to its nature.

Descartes admits that this argument may be sophistry, since he has seen the distinction between essence and existence in everything else, hence God’s essence could quite easily be separated from his existence – and ergo, thought of as not existing. Descartes counters that God’s existence can no more be separated from his essence than the essence of a triangle (e.g its three sides) could be separated from its existence, therefore we see it is impossible, according to Descartes that God, the supremely perfect being, could not exist, which would be an example of imperfection.

Again Descartes questions this conclusion, stating it still does not follow, simply because Descartes cannot think of God not existing, that he must then exist, for his thought

does not impose any necessity on things; and just as I may imagine a winged horse, even though no horse has wings, so I may be able to attach existence to God even though no God exists.  (Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, pg. 46, 1985)

Descartes has already slipped in the controversial part of the argument when he claims existence to be a predicate (contra Kant) above, Descartes considers existence to be a perfection over non-existence, since God is a supremely perfect being, existence would be included in that description. It is not necessary for Descartes to think this, but he finds it to be true when does, much like the triangle, when he thinks of it, he must include the list of attribute to it that are associated with a triangle.

Sixth meditation: The existence of material things, and the real distinction between the mind and the body

Here Descartes seems to run us through much of his thinking thus far, summing up if you will, Descartes is now feeling like he has used his method of systematic doubt to come to truths about metaphysics:

I am beginning to achieve a better knowledge of myself and the author of my being, although I do not think I should heedlessly accept everything I seem to have acquired from the senses, neither do I think  that everything should be called into doubt.(Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, pg. 54, 1985)

It is here that Descartes begins to differentiate his mind, from that of his body, he states that he can confer that his essence is that of a thinking thing, that this thinking part of him is a non-extended thing, but he also realises he has a body that is distinctly his, which is an extended, non-thinking thing. Hence it seems to Descartes that he is a separate thing from his body, and can exist without it.

Descartes must explain however the modes of thinking that involve the body, such as imagination and sense perception, he does this by partly explaining that those faculties could not exist without him (an intellectual, thinking thing), although he could exist without them. Why you may ask? He explains that there is an intellectual component which is essential to their essence, which require a thinking thing. Descartes continues stating that there are other perceptions too which requires explanation, tactile perceptions that can only work when relying upon extended things, Descartes explains this away by stating that these faculties must exist in an extended substance, not an intellectual one, as the conception of them includes extension, and no intellectual act at all.

Descartes states there is a passive faculty in him that detects via the senses, a faculty for “receiving and recognizing the ideas of sensible objects” (p. 55) meaning: there is a faculty in him which perceives physical objects. Descartes states however that this faculty could not be used by him as it is not perceived by the intellect, and it affects him against his will, meaning he has not control over it, hence this faculty must belong to another substance, either in him, or external to him. To Descartes this substance must contain “either formally or eminently all the reality which exists objectively.” (p. 55), moreover it must either be a body that contains such, or it is God and since God is not a deceiver it is clear to Descartes that he does not either directly, or indirectly (through some creature) transmit the contents of this faculty to Descartes, as God has not given Descartes a faculty to understand this, hence it would seem the source of this faculty comes from corporeal things. From this Descartes concludes that corporeal things exist, in some form. This is how Descartes gets from his mind, the thinking thing, to the world of the senses.

Now that has been established, Descartes moves back to the mind, he states that nature teaches him that hunger, pain, thirst etc means that he is not merely present in his body, but that he is closely joined to it, nay, intermingled with it, so that the body and mind form a ‘unit’. Descartes reasons that if this were not so he, who is a thinking thing, would not feel pain when the body is injured, but would perceive the damage purely by the intellect, without sensation. Descartes mentions that there is a great difference between the mind and body though, with the body being divisible and the mind not so. It does seem that the mind is unified with the body until we look deeper and see that if a foot or arm is taken from the body, nothing is taken from the mind. To Descartes the mind is not immediately affected by all parts of the body, only the brain, or even one small part of the brain, Descartes reasons that the brain communicates to the mind, via a common sense, that for every time this part of the brain is in a given state, it relates those same signals to the mind. To demonstrate this Descartes talks of a pain in the foot, which travels up the nerves of the body to their attachments in the brain, Descartes language is very mechanical, as if it is a lever in the foot that is triggered that pulls a chord in the brain which sends a signal to the mind, that the body feels a sensation of pain. Descartes argues this is a perfect representation of God’s goodness, that he would construct a system, such as pain, and the system of nerves that run from the foot to the brain to the mind, so as to motivate a man to self-preservation. After all, it could have been simply an intellectual awareness, one that a man might ignore, or some other less effective awareness mechanism. But what of cases where this process does not work correctly? As in the case of ‘dropsy’ where a man is compelled to drink by a thirst, but when he does so, causes the man injury, to Descartes, as he stated earlier, a man is a thinking thing as well as an extended thing, and it is likely that his will can take him outside the perfection God has laid down for him.

This reasoning compels Descartes to trust the senses of his body, as they generally report the well-being of such, or rather, ‘more frequently than not’. His body is also, by the fact that it has multiple senses, has a redundancy system that he can use to confirm the report of any given sense, as well as his intellect , this put together allows him to drop his systematic doubt, from the earlier meditations as ‘almost laughable’. Moreover he can now distinguish between waking and dream states, as there is a vast difference between the two, for example his dreams are never linked to memory, with his other waking experiences, if while he is awake someone were to appear to him, then disappear, as often occurs in sleep, he could judge this was a vision created by the brain, or a ghost, but not a real man. It is when Descartes can see the entire causal process of where things come from and go to and that he can connect both to his memory and perceptions that he can differentiate. If after checking with his senses and intellect he can rest comfortably knowing that he has revealed the truth of the situation, since God is not a deceiver, he can completely trust he is without error.


This concludes both my series of blogs on Descartes’ meditations and our lecture series of him, as I come to learn, or rather scratch the surface of this amazing philosopher I understand more wholly that this meager blog series, is more akin to a strawman reading of Descartes rather than an analysis of him. Nowhere have I mentioned his new theory of ideas (and subsequently explained the use of the terms ‘objective’, ‘formal’, ’eminent’ and ‘material’) in any meaningful detail or his causal adequacy principle, I have barely scratched the surface of the mind/body discussion, or of Descartes attempts to separate essences from existence, I haven’t elaborated on his arguments for the existence of God very clearly, nor have I discussed how his arguments find their grounding in God, as a means of shedding the idea of his deceiving demon. As you can see from what I’ve put in, as compared to what I’ve missed, this was an incredibly gifted man, one whom I’m afraid to write any serious essay on (for those interested, I will be posting my essay on this blog).

The question of my essay will be ‘critically analysis Descartes 2 arguments for the existence of God’ – this essay will have to begin by discussing his causal adequacy principle in some sense, and his new theory of ideas, perhaps in the introduction and opening statements, so as to prepare the way that leads to his arguments for the existence of God. What you must understand about Descartes, if I have not elaborated, is this is a man who came from the medieval tradition of scholastic thought, and through his method of doubt, turned all his preconceived notions on their head, to come to his own kind of truth, an audacious undertaking, but what’s scarier, is it actually, kind of worked! So to discuss his arguments for the existence of God, requires that I explain the backdrop and worldview Descartes was using to explain them, otherwise they will be pieces of a puzzle, pulled out and displayed without the rest of the pieces. Not only this, but as my lecturer has stated, Descartes was immensely smarter than him (both of which are immensely smarter than me), there is little hope in deconstructing Descartes too much at my level, so it might be interesting to see simply how he almost succeeds, to merely comment on the work itself, perhaps offering criticisms and objections where possible, but this is not some apologist whose writings are easily contextualized and reviewed, this is a genius who wrote several hundred years ago, who used his own terms, and own worldview.

We have a minimum of 3,000 words to do this, or rather the limit has been set at 3,000, I’m assuming I can go over, as I’m clearly going to need to. Any criticisms or thoughts on this work thus far, would be greatly appreciated.


Descartes R., (1985). Meditations of First Philosophy trans John Cottingham,. Cambridge. Pp. 38, 40, 46, 54, 55.

Lecture Series: Pt 2 – Descartes’ Third Meditation.

March 14, 2012 Leave a comment

In today’s post we will be examining Descartes first argument for the existence of God, as this is what my assignment is on, I’m a little nervous at my ability to deconstruct Descartes fairly and accurately. This will be my attempt to collect my thoughts, any feedback would be appreciated.

Third Meditation: The existence of God

Descartes begins to discuss causes, the sufficient cause for his ideas, for his knowledge and beliefs – he briefly touched on this notion, when he discussed God in the earlier meditations, and again, when discussing his demon. But it is now that Descartes wishes to explore the cause of  his ‘judgements’, ‘volitions’, ’emotions’  – focusing mainly on judgements as he states these refer to objective facts about the world and hence he needs to know if the thoughts inside him conform to those ‘things located outside’ himself. Descartes wants to know what distinguishes his volitions and emotions, which can imagine concepts that have no referents in real life (think of a hippogriff, or a siren) and which ideas inside him, which he believes as true, and do have real referents in reality? Is it his nature (meaning: a spontaneous impulse which leads him to believe, not truth that has been revealed by a natural light. Natural light meaning, simply: reason)? Or experience which tells Descartes which of his ideas depend on his will, or not?

To discuss the truth of these questions we must look at Descartes analogy of our perception of the sun, much like our earlier discussion of the wax, if we were to base our perceptions solely on experience, we would come to a different idea of what both the sun and the wax were. In the case of the sun we see it as a tiny ball, we can be assured that this is an object in our thoughts, that has a referent in reality, but that is not the end of our discussion. How do we come to know that the sun is in fact many times larger than the earth? By ‘astronomical reasoning’ as Descartes puts it, now we have 2 ‘ideas’ of the sun in us which are in conflict – but it is through reason that we come to discover the objective reality of what the sun is.

It is here we move to Descartes discussion of the existence of God and to help us understand the argument, let us simply explore Descartes points. He begins with God, due to his attributes (omniscience, omnipotence, eternal, infinite etc) God has more objective reality, than ideas that represent finite substances. To Descartes the notion of ’causes’, are discovered through the ‘natural light’ (reason), and under this reason God must be the total and efficient cause, and that there is less reality in the effect which comes from this cause (God). It is here that Descartes reasons:

For where, I ask, could the effect get its reality from, if not from the cause? And how could the cause give it to the effect unless it possessed it? It follows from this that something cannot arise from nothing, and also that what is more perfect – that is, contains in itself more reality – cannot arise from what is less perfect. (Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, pg. 28, 1985)

To elaborate Descartes uses the example of a stone which previously did not exist, it cannot begin to exist unless it is produced by something that “contains, either formally or eminently everything to be found in the stone” (p.28). Descartes states that heat cannot be produced by something that is not hot, but by something that of at least “the same order of perfection as heat” (p.28), similarly the idea of heat, or the stone cannot exist in him unless it is put there by some cause which contains as much reality as he conceives to be in the heat or stone.

It is here where Descartes attempts to explain his theory of ideas, as it pertains to God – Descartes reasons that for an idea to contain objective reality (objective meaning in this sense, literally an object), it must be causally explained by some kind of formal reality, for if this were not the case, the idea would exist from nothing, but the fact that an idea exists in the intellect as an object (“objectively”) means that it cannot be nothing, hence it cannot come from nothing.  But this is not enough of an explanation yet, Descartes reasons that, when looking for the origin of his ideas, there cannot be an infinite regress of them, they must have a first cause, a ‘primary idea’, an “archetype which contains formally all the reality which is present only objectively.” (Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, pg. 29, 1985)

From this line of reasoning Descartes begins to discover how he might not be alone in the universe, that if there is an objective reality to any of his ideas, that are so great, that that reality could not reside in him, hence he could not be their cause, hence, from this it is necessary that he is not alone, and that some other thing, which is the cause of these ideas, must exist. How does Descartes discern however between God and his ideas of other objects (he uses ‘angels, animals and other men’ as examples), he states he has no difficulty understanding that they could be put together from the ideas he has of himself,  of ‘corporeal things’, or that there is nothing so great in them, that they could not have originated from him. Further still Descartes searches to see if there is some falsity to his reasoning, in this idea of ‘material falsity’ that is ideas that refer to ‘non-things’,  which Descartes states come from the fact the he is imperfect.

In turning his focus on God, he asks himself the above questions, if there is anything in the idea of God that could come from him? If we consider God defined as infinite, independent, supremely intelligent, supremely powerful, and which created both everything and him, Descartes reasons it is unlikely this idea of God, comes from himself. To unpack this Descartes continues elaborating that he is a finite substance, so where does the idea of an infinite substance come from? It is in Descartes previously mentioned imperfection that he comes to understand that the infinite, which contains more reality than the finite is some way prior to his perception of the finite, in the face of Descartes imperfection, he reasons how would he know what that is, if there was not some idea in him of perfection? Descartes answers a few objections stating that is not needed for him to completely understand all the attributes of God, and how they work in reality, for:

“it is in the nature of the infinite not to be grasped by finite being like myself. It is enough that I understand the infinite and that I judge all the attributes which I clearly perceive and know to imply some perfection – and perhaps countless other of which I am ignorant – are present in God either formally or eminently. This is enough to make the idea that I have of God the truest and most clear and distinct of all my ideas.(Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, pg. 32, 1985)

Descartes, in a moment of doubt, wonders why a being more perfect than him must necessarily proceed from some being which is in reality more perfect – to probe this thought, Descartes asks if he could exist if no such being existed. Causally, he asks from whence his existence could come then? From himself? His parents? Or some other beings less perfect than God? Descartes states: if he were to have self-created he would be perfect (in the sense that he would not doubt, or lack anything) as he would have given himself these abilities, in essence he would be God.  But perhaps the cause is not God, perhaps he was created by his parents, or some other cause less perfect, but as he has already stated, an effect has as much in it, as the cause, if this is the case then Descartes’ cause must be a thinking thing ,which he is, and as he has an ‘objective’ idea of God, there must be some being with all the attributes and perfections of God. Descartes defends, again, his notion of God against the charge that several partial causes could be responsible for creating him, or that he received his notion of perfection from several separate causes in the universe – but the fact that God is unified in a single cause, is more perfect than the notion of a separate disconnected cause, which is congruent with the definition of God, as perfect. Moreover the cause that led Descartes to believe objectively in God, must also have come from a cause which is itself unified.


I’m not even going into Descartes 4th meditation today, this blog is long, and incoherent enough now as it is, the 4th meditation is on ‘truth and falsity’, and not strictly pertaining to God, while still referring to it.

Deciphering this reading has been a task, one I fear might be outside my ability to reasonably discuss. I’ve made no effort to discredit Descartes hypothesis regarding God, it is enough for me merely to attempt to understand it, at the moment. I’m wondering if this is a question I want to tackle for my assignment now, especially considering my lecturer refered to it as a ‘perverse’ question, in the sense that is ‘perversely difficult’ which my analysis of Descartes is beginning to demonstrate to me. I realise now, my reviews here and here, were by no means accurate, and I have not understood Descartes, perhaps even now. He was an immensely talented thinker, one I recommend we all spend some serious time deconstructing and analysing, much of our Western philosophy is based around Cartesian notions, perhaps not so much anymore, but much still remains, especially in theistic thought (think: mind/body dualism as an example).


Descartes R., (1985). Meditations of First Philosophy trans John Cottingham,. Cambridge. Pp. 28, 29,32

Lecture series: Pt.1 – Descartes’ First And Second Meditations.

March 7, 2012 Leave a comment

Let us take a moment out of discussion of the word faith to discuss philosophy.

I’ve decided that to aid in my course work for university (a graduate certificate in Philosophy), in ‘Critical Metaphysics’, I would do a blog on each lecture, lecture notes, and readings – this will not only help with my assignments, but will also similarly, help with my understanding.

Let us begin with Descartes:

First Meditations: What can be called into doubt

Descartes begins by elaborating his method of doubt, how he came to this method, which he did by seeing “a large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently based on them.” (Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, pg. 12, 1985) Our lecturer Paul MacDonald claims this discussion of doubt to be one of the most profound ever spoken in philosophy, and led to influence a “ground-breaking revolution in 17th century thought.” (MacdDonald, PHL128 Critical Metaphysics: Unit Information and Learning Guide, pg, 18, 2012) From this basic skepticism Descartes followed his reasoning to demolish his entire worldview, his interpretive system of the world, and perhaps more importantly, the one society had built and given him – in an effort to find pure, basic truth, in effect, what could be known with certainty.

MacDonald outlines how Descartes uses the metaphor of architecture to relay his “grounded scientific knowledge into a coherent whole” (MacDonald, PHL128 CriticalMetaphysics: Unit Information and Learning Guide, pg, 18, 2012). Which we see as Descartes describes the process by which he will come to find doubt – instead of searching all of his opinions, he will simply focus on undermining the foundations of his building, and once done, all that is built upon that foundation will crumble and he will be brought to “the basic principles on which all my former beliefs rested.” (Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, pg. 12, 1985)

Descartes now moves on to why he rejects sense experience, one of those foundational beliefs: all he knew was acquired by sense experience (or through the senses), and sense experience Descartes claims can, from time to time, be deceived, and upon Descartes’ view it is wise to “never trust completely those who deceived us even once.” (Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, pg. 12, 1985) Descartes then leads us down a tongue in cheek example of how our senses are deceived when we are asleep, and if that is the case, it is possible our senses are deceived when we wake, or rather, we have found an example that demonstrates uncertainty in our sense experience. MacDonald is an aid here, in helping us understand how Descartes relates the world of the senses to algebraic geometry (MacDonald cites Descartes’ Discourse on the Method as the source to see Descartes go through this process), we see Descartes analyse the physical world and come to the conclusion that deductive processes, those primarily involved with mathematics (he uses the terms “extension”, “the shape of extended things”. the quantity, size and number of these things”, “the place in which they may exist”, and “the time through which they may endure”) are the most certain. From this Descartes concludes that inductive enterprises, that is, probabilistic enterprises such as physics, astronomy, medicine etc, which depend on the study of composite things, are doubtful:

while arithmetic, geometry and other subjects of this kind, which deal; with the simplest most general things, regardless whether they really exist in nature or not, contain something certain and indubitable. (Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, pg. 14, 1985)

This brings us to Descartes discussion of God, not a positive argument for God, at this stage, but rather how God would be involved in Descartes ability to come to knowledge. Again it is MacDonald who helps us discern Descartes point: to MacDonald’s understanding it is memory that holds our reasoning together, but memory can be altered with, although this would take an extremely powerful agent, and God is defined as being supremely good, hence for now, we withhold or suspend assent in regards to the proposition that God could interfere with Descartes route to knowledge.

According to Descartes to counter his “powerful conviction” that his deductive reasoning is sound, he will need an equally powerful doubt, this is where we are introduced to the famous ‘Cartesian Demon’. Descartes assumes this demon to have used its “utmost power and cunning” to deceive him, he will assume that all his sense experience is merely the delusion of a dream so devised to snare his judgement, in an attempt to so discover what is true, irrespective of the cunning influence of the malicious demon. Descartes admits, this is a taxing enterprise and one that requires his constant attention, lest he slide back into established and old opinions.

Second Meditation: The nature of the human mind, and how it is better known than the body

In this meditation Descartes reflects upon the seriousness of his earlier enterprise, and that he is resolute to find certainty, by dropping any knowledge which is merely probable. It is here that we see Descartes heading toward his famous “cogito ergo sum” (“I think therefore I am”), Descartes analyses thought, and where it comes from, and what conclusions may be had from the analysis of such, that even in the face of his deceiver, his demon, it cannot be brought about that he is not a thinking thing, for even to be deceived is a deception of thought, which can only occur in the mind of a thinking thing.  From this Descartes sees that the proposition “I am, I exist” whenever it is put forward by him, or conceived in a mind is “necessarily true”. But this is not the end of the discussion, Descartes must answer several questions: what does it mean to be a thinking thing? What is a thinking thing? Is that a man? Most importantly, what is this “I” that Descartes speaks of? Descartes searches, rationally, through the list of possible candidates to what the “I” could mean, a man? A rational animal? But theres terms led Descartes down a path that asks more questions than they solve. Could the “I” be a body? Well, a corpse has a body. This needs further unpacking. To Descartes being a body would be more appropriately defined as containing “a determinable shape and a definable location and can occupy a space in such a way as to exclude an other body; it can be perceived by touch, sight, hearing, taste or smell, and can be moved in various ways, not by itself, but by whatever else comes into contact with it.” (Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, pg. 12, 1985) Descartes however, in light of his demon, cannot accept this definition, so its back to the drawing board. A being who possess sense experience perhaps? Descartes yet again dismisses sense experience as a route to the definition of the “I”, even though prima facie it makes sense to define himself that way, as surely sense perception does not occur without a body? Until we come back to Descartes earlier musings in which we remember our defeater for the certainty of sense experience: dreams, and sleep – where we appear to experience sense perception, but are deceived by our minds.

It is here where Descartes makes his pivotal breakthrough, he proposes the notion of thought, Descartes reasons that thought is inseparable from him, he is he as long as he is a thinking thing:

At present I am not admitting anything except what is necessarily true. I am, then, in the strict sense only a thing that thinks, that is, I am a mind, or intelligence, or intellect, or reason – words whose meaning I have been ignorant of until now. But for all that I am a thing which is real and which truly exists. But what kind of thing? As I have just said – a thinking thing. (Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, pg. 19, 1985)

More specifically to Descartes this thing that thinks is also a thing that “doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions.” (Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, pg. 19, 1985) To Descartes these additional attributes are necessary and absolutely part of the thinking thing, the “I”, they are just as true as the fact the he exists, and they are discovered a priori.

Next, to further discuss sense perception Descartes uses a piece of wax, he demonstrates the malleability of the senses, he holds the hard piece of wax, melts it, and we see its components change, this begs the question; is it the same piece of wax? The look has changed, the tastes and smells have changed, but the wax remains, even though the features of the wax remain, its form, which we perceive by our senses has changed. Perhaps the take home message is: if we were to define the wax, purely by sense experience, we might have to change the label of the wax – it is by reason, by the intellect, by “mental scrutiny” to use Descartes term, that we understand the wax is still the same piece of wax. It is from this piece of wax, that Descartes turns to the exterior world, that it is reason that dictates, for example, the men he sees in hats and coats outside his window as men, they could just as easily be automatons, for all his eyes can see, but it is by judgement, solely in the mind, that he recognises that they are men. To Descartes, what separates animals from humans is not our ability to perceive by senses, which animals and humans both surely can, but it is the intellect, the ability to be able to consider the wax, as an extended, grasped, flexible and changeable thing, this consideration requires a human, thinking thing, perhaps the “I” we discussed earlier.

Descartes concludes this meditation by stating that bodies are not strictly perceived by the senses, by rather by the intellect alone, and that this understanding comes from understanding, not by touch, or sight. Moreover that it his is own mind that Descartes can come to know the most, above anything else.


From Descartes musings we come to understand more about the nature of the relationship between the senses and reason, and how much we take for granted the combination of both, in constructing our worldview (consider the wax, and the men outside Descartes window). The concept of the demon Descartes used is an example of truly unique thought, to be able to deconstruct the current science, the current thought, to move to a realm of skepticism is truly astonishing, just as was Descartes “cogito ergo sum”, to conclude that he is a thinking thing, through pure reason, was a fascinating journey to follow.


Descartes R., (1985). Meditations of First Philosophy trans John Cottingham,. Cambridge. Pp. 12, 14, 18, 19.

MacDonald P., (2012).  PHL128 CriticalMetaphysics: Unit Information and Learning Guide, P, 18.

Faith: Pt.1 – Definitions.

February 21, 2012 2 comments

Today, let’s look at a few conceptions, and defences of the word ‘faith’, in the ‘religious faith’ sense of the word, to see if it really is anything more than simple ‘belief without evidence’ – as some skeptics might claim.

Firstly we must look at definitions and, of course, the Bible is the best place to start, to try to tease out what is meant by the word ‘faith’. We may find it hard to pinpoint any specific definition of faith, particularly one that won’t draw criticism and argument from theists. Perhaps the best we can hope for in attempting to lock the Bible down in anything, is to have a reasoned discussion, and simply let the passages speak for themselves.

Any discussion on the Bible’s use of the word ‘faith’ must ultimately begin in Hebrews 11:1:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1, King James Version, p. 1930)

In the footnotes on this section the editors of this edition of the Bible state that this above definition is not so much a function of what faith is, but rather a description of what faith does.  They state that faith provides substance, and in the orignal Greek this would normally mean “assurance”, which is why you may sometimes see this passage with the word ‘assurance’ instead of ‘substance’. Secondly the authors suggest that faith provides ‘evidence’, meaning in the “sense of proof that results in conviction.” (p. 1930) Hence, why you may also see ‘evidence’ substituted for ‘conviction’ in some passages. The authors state:

The difference between assurance and evidence would be minimal were it not for the phrase qualifying each: of things hoped for and of things not seen. The first involves future hope; the second involves present realities not seen. the first includes the hope of the resurrection, the return of Christ, and the glorification of the saints. The second involves unseen realities, such as the forgiveness of sin through Christ’s sacrifice and the present intercession of Christ in heaven. Hope is faith relating to the future; conviction is faith relating to the present. (King James Version, p. 1930)

Under this explanation and definition we can begin to discuss some of what ‘faith’ means to some biblical authors; firstly, to say that faith provides ‘substance’, properly understood as ‘assurance’ can be reasonably interpreted to mean ‘faith provides comfort’. Secondly to say that faith provides ‘evidence’ understood as ‘conviction’  seems to suggest that faith provides ‘strength of will’, or ‘character’ in the sense that one would face the challenges of the world, or adversity, or worldly struggles, under the Christian conception – a ‘stiff upper lip’ if you will.

Going further though, the authors explain ‘faith’ in the first sense as a ‘comfort in believing the resurrection, the return of Christ and the glorification of the saints, as true’, where as in the second sense faith provides a ‘strength of will to endure the hope of unseen forgiveness of Christ’s sacrifice and the present intercession of Christ in heaven.’

If my interpretation of the biblical authors above is accurate (and it may well not be), it would seem that the Hebrews passage both describes a personal feeling of assurance in the works of Christ, so recorded in the Bible (his acts) as well as a trusting in the things not seen (Jesus’ works of salvation).

At the very least we see that the above passage supports our earlier contention that there is a lot of language used to describe ‘faith’ that suggests a lack of rational or epistemic justification for belief in God, and His works, ergo, it seems justifiable to proclaim the ‘belief without evidence’ slogan that some atheists do, even if it is a touch simplistic, at least in this case.

Moving on, this isn’t the only passage that talks of faith in the Bible, John 20:29 states:

Jesus said unto him. Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet believed. (John 20:29, King James Version, p. 1654)

These isolated passages certainly seem to revel in a lack of epistemic justification for belief, and as Jesus is the authority of the Christian faith, this implies an epistemology Christians should follow. Moreover, this conception of belief without evidence, is consistent with the Hebrews passage.

Having said that though, there are also many passages (Romans 3:18, 5:1, Galatians 2:16, 2:8,  3:8-12, James 2:17, Revelation 2:12 etc)  that discuss faith as a verb, as something you do, or hold, which is consistent with another sense of the word ‘faith’ used by those who define it, both in the Bible (Hebrews above) and without (which we will discuss more in a moment). This should give critics of the word ‘faith’ pause, only long enough to investigate what the proponent means, when they use the word.

Moving away from the Bible, the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines faith as:

The conviction of the truth of some doctrine which is the result of a voluntary act of will. According to *fideists who happen to be believers in the same doctrine, this act may be meritorious (and a refusal to make it may be a fault or even a *sin); according to others, it may in fact be just as sinful to ride roughshod over the deliverance of reason (itself a divine gift) when that commands us to suspend judgement. (Blackburn, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 130, 2008)

Let us unpack this definition a little: it seems as if faith in the above sense, is the act of will over reason. Moreover, those who hold to this dogma, also assert that to rely on ‘evidence’ over faith, may in fact be a negative (“sin”)-  we might consider this the ‘common view’ of the word ‘faith’ (in the ‘religious faith’ sense), in that it portrays a lack of respect for evidence and epistemic or rational justification – at least by an atheists perception. It is also a view, as we see from above, that is supported, biblically.

For a more in-depth analysis, let us move to the Oxford Concise Dictionary of The Christian Church which gives us far too long a quote to list here, but paraphrased the author, Livingstone, suggests there are 2 ‘distinct senses’ in which the word faith is used, under the Christian conception. (1) The body of the Christian faith is found in the “Creeds, the definitions of Councils, etc., and especially in the Bible.” (p. 213) The teachings of which are said to come from Christ and are to be rejected at your own peril. (Livingstone, Oxford Concise Dictionary of The Christian Church, p. 213, 2006)

Under (1) we see that perhaps what is meant by ‘faith’ in the apparent objective sense implied is that the Christian creeds, dogma and tradition is simply labelled as “faith” (this is the second kind of usage of the word ‘faith’, that we talked about above, mentioned in the Bible). This is confusing though, why would a term be given, that certainly implies belief held without appropriate justification, when in fact, all that is simply meant is ‘tradition, creeds and the Bible‘, which is seemingly the justification for the belief system, or worldview known as Christianity? In essence, Christians have used a word that commonly means ‘belief without evidence’ to label their worldview, which they deem to be ‘belief with evidence’. This is intentional obfuscation, or intentional revisionism, I’m not sure which is better. But let us continue with our definitions before we make too loud a pronouncement.

Livingstone continues providing (2), accompanying the ‘objective’ standard for faith given in (1), there is also an apparent ‘subjective’ faith which is the individuals response to the divine itself, “depicted in the NT as involving trust in God rather than intellectual assent.” Livingstone states that according to theologians this acceptance is not a natural act, but rather, something given by, and is dependant solely on, God’s “action in the soul.”  Livingstone continues stating that in the Middle Ages the term was slightly re-defined to select between those truths accessible by the human intellect via reason (for example: the existence of God), and those truths that could be understood only by faith alone (for example: the Trinity).

Under (2) we get a more traditional definition of what most of us atheists understand ‘religious faith’ to be, with words and phrases used like ‘trust’, ‘act of will’, ‘those truths that could be understood only by faith alone’ – something like what we saw with the Hebrews, and John passage. It seems the Christian ‘faith’, at least on the subjective level, viz. Livingstone, Hebrews, John 20:29 et al,  is based on a series of words and phrases, which override epistemic justification, and rely simply on accepting the word of dogma, irrespective of evidence or rational justification. Which seems to support the contention that, at least in some respects ‘religious faith’, it can be argued, is ‘belief without evidence’, or rather, ‘belief irrespective of (counter) evidence’. After all, why do you need trust, or faith, in a conclusion that you have rational justification for? You merely (tentatively?) accept it, and your acceptance is proportional to the evidence, and changes with the evidence – if you care about what is true, and having good reasons for belief.

Moreover under (2) there is a fine line drawn, that may in fact be outright question begging: according to Livingstone Christianity finds its justification through faith, which also comes from, and relies upon, God. How is this not circular? It amounts to saying: “God exists, and Christianity is true, because God tells me it is so.”

It seems from the 2 senses Livingstone gives above, that (1) implies simply the catalogue of Christian ‘evidence’ for the belief system, which itself, is simply titled ‘faith’ without actually implying what the word is commonly meant to imply (belief without evidence). And under (2) the common view of the word ‘faith’ is given, in that it is an act of will, over the light of reason, a ‘trust’ in the dogma, tradition and creeds provided by the Christian ‘faith’ that is not dependent on reason (re: evidence?), but rather is dependent on God’s grace. Livingtone’s definition provides a conflicting message, on (1) the Christian ‘faith’ seemingly has its evidence in the Bible, yet under (2) the ‘faith’ is defined as trusting in the supernatural works of God. We are left to ask, if (1) does not provide rational justification for (2), then there is seemingly no rational way to accept (2) or (1). From this we can conclude that if the ‘tradition, creeds and the Bible’ is not enough to provide rational justification for the Christian faith, if epistemic leaps are being made, then we might be justified in inferring, yet again, that in some senses the Christian faith is based on ‘belief without rational justification.’

In our next post we will discuss what popular apologists have to say regarding faith.


It seems in the end, based on our very cursory examination of what ‘faith’ means, that the word has 2 meanings, or senses in which it is used. (1) appears to denote a kind of ‘belief without evidence’ in the sense that, it involves a trust, belief, or even hope in a god or god’s works and existence. None of these words inspire us to much confidence that what the authors mean is “epistemically or rational justified true belief’, but we need not make assumptions. The definitions above seem to imply that while there are portions of the Christian ‘faith’ that are accepted based on evidence (natural theology for example) there are aspects that are not (salvation, the Trinity etc), which can allow us to conclude, that any simple rhetoric about ‘belief without evidence’ might need to be unpacked in discussion, before simply being bandied about.

Then there is (2) in which faith is the experience of being a Christian, that the system is simply entitled a ‘faith’ without adhering to what we might naturally think the word means. This isn’t simply a modern delineation either, as we see there is biblical precedent for the definition of ‘faith’ as ‘belief that goes beyond the evidence’. Under (2) faith becomes the traditions, creeds, the Bible and doctrines that make up the Christian faith.

This analysis should give us pause, from making any simple pronouncements about the word ‘faith’ and to get us thinking about the context with which it is used. It should be noted, and possibly stressed, that in our discussion of the word ‘faith’, and deciding whether the ‘belief without evidence’ slogan is fair, that Christians actually do offer a rational defense for their faith, with evidence, argument, and logic – hence why they certainly wouldn’t see their ‘faith’ as being ‘belief without evidence’. In this discussion we are only addressing what is meant by the word ‘faith’, not the arguments and evidence Christians offer. Given time to think about it, however,  the fact that Christians do offer argument and evidence, makes the use of the word ‘faith’ even more baffling. Why use a word, that promotes such a negative connotation, to define your belief system, when you believe it to be epistemically and rational justified? Is it simply tradition, and dogma that keeps such an antiquated word going? The problem is, it forces apologists and theologians into such bizarre contortions to attempt to free it from its common usage, that we might wonder why the word isn’t simply dropped altogether.


Blackburn S. (2008).  The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Edition).  New York. Oxford University Press. P. 130.

Livingstone E.A. (2006) P. 236. Oxford Concise Dictionary of The Christian Church (Revised 2nd Edition). New York. Oxford University Press. P. 213.

King James Version. (1988). Thomas Nelson Inc. Pp. 1654, 1930.

Categories: Skepticism, The Bible, Theism

The Sunset Limited.

February 7, 2012 Leave a comment

This is an interesting movie, I just happened to come across it, randomly, through the interwebs. Based on a Cormac MaCarthy book, it opens with Tommy Lee Jones (simply known as “White”), sitting at a table with Samuel L. Jackson (known only as “Black”) discussing the nature of life, religion, passions, meaning, the world, society, culture, violence, consequence, God, Jesus, atheism, nihilism, jail, literature etc. The full gamut of experience is viewed and explored by these characters. The basic premise being  – Black saved White’s life from a suicide attempt, having done this they retire to Black’s house, so that the poorly educated, yet religious Black, may attempt to assuage the intelligent, educated professor (White) into seeing something in the world, to hold on to.

The obvious and basic premise labelled, it’s important to note, that the underlying meaning, at least to me, is not that Black is a theist because he is classically “uneducated”, nor, similarly, is White an atheist because he is “smart” (indeed one may wonder what is smart about suicide). I also didn’t feel like any particular view-point was especially  strawmanned, nor did I feel a preference in the director’s (also Tommy Lee Jones) preconceptions or presuppositions – the audience is left with 2 convincing characters that portray their view points fairly, and with passion.

Being that this entire 90 min movie is set on one location, with 2 actors going at each other, with no theatrical “tricks” (cuts, edits, flashbacks etc)  employed, the weight of this piece is firmly set on these 2 characters interactions – and it works, powerfully.

I felt a collection of things during this movie, and many of the utterances given by both characters struck me – obviously because I align with the atheists position, and have, like so many apologists claim, dealt with nihilism (though have moved on from it), I was affected by White’s dialogue. Many things he said, resonated with me. And that’s part of what I wanted to say here.

White’s character is dark, at his wit’s end, but most importantly, this is a rational person, a seeming contradiction, after all – how can you be suicidal, yet rational? White articulates his case over the course of the movie, his sense of … disillusion with the world, that “happiness is contrary to the human condition”, and that “we were born into such a fix as this, suffering and human destiny are the same thing, each one is a description of the other”.

As an uneducated, and moody teenager I dabbled in this same idea of the futility of existence, in the Nietzschean “death of God” sense, or to quote Tool: “it doesn’t matter what’s right, it’s only wrong if you get caught”. It’s easy to see why people are like White, that given a particular view of the world, even he states: “I don’t regard my state of mind as some pessimistic view of the world, I regard it as the world itself”, and that this world he refers to is “a horrible place, full of horrible people”. We see this given commonly among apologetics as the default atheist position, but it is rather, the lazy, or reactionary position, for depressed people, not necessarily atheists. Moreover the reason theists might say this is due to the fact that they have their meaning gift wrapped for their pleasure, a stalwart tradition from which to draw, socially accepted (majority) communities – seems easy. Even if in practice, it really isn’t. Atheists on the other hand, have no such gift wrapped world view, or community from which to draw strength, generally, they have to find what philosophies they will adopt, what meaning the see value in (which does not mean subjective relativism). And nihilism, and depression can be a result of facing reality, on its terms.

The problem for me of course, the reason I don’t subscribe to nihilism, to the death of value, where I part from White – is because I subscribe to a worldview, not only that, not as lofty as that, I look at the world around me, I look at the results of World War 2, I look at people who fight religious intolerance, inequality, the point my reason leads me to?

There are good people in this world – who fight intolerance.

There are people who fight everyday for the good, Black may be considered one of those people. There are people fighting the world over for a cause that is just – look at our society, there are ways of looking at it, that it seems dark – poverty, molestation, rape, jealousy, greed, these are all part of the condition of being alive. I think White would argue, that the fact that good people have to fight, against that dark backdrop, only speaks to the futility of the enterprise, or as he says “you can’t be happy if you’re in pain”. White’s at a point, where he has no fight in him anymore, he doesn’t see the world anymore, the forms he sees are ‘colours” and “shapes”, but with none of the value we attribute to these things, and moreover he sees this as supported, biblically: as he says, “even God gives up at some point, I’ve never heard of a ministry in Hell.”

White is, perhaps not eminently likeable – he is evasive to the most simple questions, which makes him sound like a petulant child, not wanting to cater to someone he considers (intellectually) beneath him. This also makes him passively condescending, we see how he views Black, I guess, like so many atheists might do.

Here we see Black’s increasing despair and desperation as the power of the relationship switches, through most of the movie Black is the one asking the questions, throwing his theology around, sharing his life experience. White is uncomfortable, constantly feeling the need to leave. But it’s when White opens up on Black that we feel, if not see, White’s conclusion as seemingly undeniable, moreover, we see that Black feels it, not completely mind you.

Black goes from the boisterous, happy guy with all the answers to a man shaking with his head between his legs, as White spews all his bile at him, articulating so well, just what he sees is so hopeless, not just wrong, but hopeless about the world. It’s here we see a complete character come to life, and we empathise with what White feels like he needs to do, moreover, we might even feel, in our darker moments of despair,  like the only thing that makes us disagree with him, is that we fear pain not death, or that we just want to stay – essentially, that our reasons for living are trivial.

I found myself thinking about death, about my own, about obliteration, nothingness, and part of me almost felt, as White did, and perhaps feeding off him,  an excitement, a kind of peace about death. That this life is full of hustle and bustle, and that in death we find absolution, quiet, solace. Of course it won’t be that way, as even White knows, there can be no community of the dead because there are no entities to form such.

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