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This is personal

30 Sep

It seems to me, that for the atheist – the strident philosophical naturalist (i.e. “nature” reveals itself to be unguided and purposeless) – they must believe that the personal realities of life are fundamentally false.  After all, reality is, at bottom, fundamentally impersonal.  Therefore, the idea of the personal – that we are persons, entitled to all the dignity that hallowed word implies, who meaningfully relate to other persons – can be nothing other than a useful fiction.

But if this is the case, this would mean, that in some sense, all of our experiences are false – even if, shunning solipsism, we take comfort in the fact we are all deceived together.  After all, would this not mean that all of our ideas about life: what we theorize in this or that case – as well as what we “know” to be true – could be nothing other than “useful fictions”?  How could anything other than useful fictions arise from useful fictions?  All ideas – including “personhood” and everything else – could only be used pragmatically, which means they can only be used with cynicism.  In other words, the philosophical naturalist must give up on the ideas of truth that philosophers have traditionally explored.

And as goes the person, so goes philosophy.

Really, if the personal arises from the impersonal, as some might argue, what does this mean?  How can the personal be real, unless the impersonal is fundamentally changed into the personal?  But how would this happen?  How would an atheist define person – over and against “human being” (the definition which would have to include, at some level: “…a complex aggregation of fundamental particles, arranged through unguided and purposeless [i.e. “impersonal”] processes”) that is?  And what would be the point – other than creating a useful fiction that allows one to sound sensible around people who really do believe in “personhood” and “human dignity” that is – of even trying to define such a [useless?] word (but then again, are not even all useful words ultimately useless, as life is ultimately meaningless)?

If the atheist says: we create our own meaning together, for some this is clearly too great a burden to bear.  After all, it is a shallow meaning and purpose created by those who have derived from meaninglessness and purposelessness.  What is truth indeed?

Of course, this is getting very far away from the thoughts of children.  I suggest that for them, reality is fundamentally personal.

From the very beginning – from our first cries upon entering this temporal world – we discover that life is personal.  Interaction with others is constant: we smile and look at one another, we make each other laugh, and we observe, study, and imitate those we admire and look up to.  Through one another, we receive joy.  And as Paul argued in Acts 14, seamlessly making the connection between the personal and the physical (or material):  “Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”  Gladness is no doubt created in part through the awe and wonder the created world around us produces – but it is even more so a product of the loving relationships that we have been blessed to know.

How odd it would be if we were to discover that the closer we would examine this thing we call life, that it would reveal itself to be fundamentally made up of that which is impersonal.

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15 Comments

Posted by on September 30, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

15 responses to “This is personal

  1. Robert

    October 2, 2010 at 3:58 am

    I don’t see why reality has to be impersonal or false for the naturalist. It may be arbitrary or subjective, but false assumes that there is a right and a wrong. For the naturalist reality just simply “is”. The “why” or even the “how” question is not necessary to ask. Persons exist in reality and that makes it sufficiently personal. No?

     
    • infanttheology

      October 4, 2010 at 1:06 pm

      Robert,

      Thanks for commenting. I understand that for the naturalist reality simply is. In this case wouldn’t claims about reality either be true or false? At the very least, some ideas about reality are more accurate representations of it than others, correct? And for the naturalist, some ideas about reality would be just plain wrong – or inaccurate – right? Further, why is it only the naturalist who says that reality just simply “is”. If I am interpreting you correctly, I believe the same thing, except for me, reality happens to be fundamentally personal, i.e. it is not about unguided and undirected laws of nature (which are part and parcel of material reality: i.e. it can’t be separated from it). For the naturalist, persons “exist” in reality only insofar as the naturalist says that they do, because all is ultimately and fundamentally and foundationally about the Impersonal particles and laws. Further, if the naturalist really is concerned about understanding, as best he can, what reality really is, s/he is going to have to ask why and how questions, for their own sake as well as for when it comes to sensibly representing (talking coherently about) that reality to others.

      Would be glad to get a rebuttal!

      ~Nathan

       
  2. Robert

    October 4, 2010 at 11:29 pm

    Hi Nathan,

    Let me state upfront that I don’t think we fundamentally disagree. My point however is that the personal/impersonal touch point (such as you posit) is not fruitful in a theist/naturalist dialogue for we must (first) demonstrate that self-reference is an insufficient basis for ultimate meaning of reality. We must also make clear as to what is understood by “reality” – for the theist reality is not restricted to matter or nature but rather derives its meaning metaphysically. Our methods of acquiring knowledge, our epistemologies, are worlds apart.

    By “reality simply is” I meant that no further explanations are for the atheist necessary. Reality is just a given, and questions about the “why” of reality are deemed irrelevant, unnecessary or not in order (for the theist this would obviously not be acceptable). But for the atheist this does not preclude meaning, nor make reality impersonal, *within* the context of this reality. This I believe is an important distinction for I don’t think it is accurate to say for the naturalist that, “the personal realities of life are fundamentally false.” Reality can be as personal for the naturalist as for the theist. We differ however as to its meaning and purpose.

    If the universe for the theist can be seen as an “open” system (for God has created it, and has His existence outside of it), it is for the atheist a “closed” system. For the atheist the universe is infinite, without beginning and end – nothing exists outside it. Hence all understanding, meaning and quality is to be derived from within. I believe that to be the atheist’s Achilles heel.

    The theist would counter that the atheist is ultimately self-referential and as such is not able to remove himself from within his context (despite claims to the contrary – you will notice this came up in the Evolution vs Fundamentalism debate posted at Frontier Orthodoxy) and consequently not able to provide a justified basis for making metaphysical pronouncements (such as “God does not exist”), nor provide ultimate meaning to and purpose of reality.

    I hope that is helpful and clarifies. This is obviously a very involved topic, but well worth our while.

     
    • infanttheology

      October 5, 2010 at 1:43 pm

      Robert,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to engage me here. I don’t deny I might need some educating.

      “we must (first) demonstrate that self-reference is an insufficient basis for ultimate meaning of reality.”

      I think we may agree here, but I am not sure. Could you explain in a little more detail what you mean?

      “We must also make clear as to what is understood by “reality” – for the theist reality is not restricted to matter or nature but rather derives its meaning metaphysically.”

      I agree about the different starting points between the theist and atheist, but is seems to me that since we are not using the words “world”, or “cosmos”, or “nature”, but “reality” (is this word actually not a 12th c. Christian creation – I think it is…). I have in mind here primarily philosophical definitions like the following: “that which exists, independent of human awareness”, and “the totality of facts as they are independent of human awareness of them”.

      “Reality is just a given, and questions about the “why” of reality are deemed irrelevant, unnecessary or not in order”

      First, I am not sure about this, as even atheists find themselves talking about “why things are the way they are” (i.e. this is what cosmological theories and evolutionary theories are all about!). Second, I think it is human nature that we can’t not ask why…

      “But for the atheist this does not preclude meaning, nor make reality impersonal, *within* the context of this reality.”

      I would be interested in hearing about atheists who talk about meaning that is objective. I am not saying that they do not believe that the data they see in the world does not compel them to the conclusion (i.e. meaning) that life is fundamentally about, and based on particles and the laws those particles run by. This, of course, is what is objectively real. This is what the data in the world compels us to believe (this is the evidence that “demands a verdict”). This is what it must mean. I am talking about meaning in a different way: i.e. meaning and purpose in life. It seems to me that those who in their efforts to create beauty, justice, and meaning with some and not others, concluding that they should or must use whatever knowledge they can in order to exclude or eliminate those not of their group, or those they determine to be opposed to their group’s goals have a very shallow meaning indeed. For the atheist, I do not see how their “meaning” can not be something like I just said above.

      “This I believe is an important distinction for I don’t think it is accurate to say for the naturalist that, “the personal realities of life are fundamentally false.” Reality can be as personal for the naturalist as for the theist. We differ however as to its meaning and purpose”

      Of course reality can be as personal for the naturalist as the theist. That is my point. It is. They simply, if they are logically consistent, must see that their “deeper view of reality”, i.e. that it is ultimately about the atoms, must be seriously lacking. Again, the philosophical naturalist (not necessarily the methodological one) is the one who asserts that the laws of nature *are* unguided and undirected (i.e. thinking about things in this way is not simply a “useful fiction” but is the truth). If you have no guidance and direction, you have no deeper meaning and purpose, right?

      “…for the atheist [the universe is] a “closed” system. For the atheist the universe is infinite, without beginning and end – nothing exists outside it. Hence all understanding, meaning and quality is to be derived from within. I believe that to be the atheist’s Achilles heel.”

      I understand what you are saying here, I think. The problem is that many atheists seem to be fine talking about how we don’t know if the universe is infinite, because, after all, we only have evidence that suggests that it isn’t. In addition, the actual evidence that scientists have gathered suggests that the universe (the whole thing we have evidence of) had a beginning – and many atheists are content saying this to, I think. Now, we may say that that is inconsistent, and that all of them should be like Stephen Hawking, for example, but of course, even his approach is littered with scientific problems (first and foremost, about the balance between theoretical models and actual evidence). In short, I say that “meaning and quality” derived from within is no real meaning, and that atheists, deep down, know this, or are at least uncomfortable with this (if not in good times, than in bad times).

      “consequently not able to provide a justified basis for making metaphysical pronouncements (such as “God does not exist”), nor provide ultimate meaning to and purpose of reality.”

      Here, I think we can see what you are getting at when you say we are basically saying the same thing: “[the atheist cannot] provide ultimate meaning to and purpose of reality”. My point would be that when we talk about persons, personality, human dignity, etc., we actually have a basis for our talk about such things, i.e. God incarnate in human flesh, crucified and resurrected, for the life of the world. The atheist, who asserts that ultimate meaning must be tied up with unguided and undirected (read: impersonal) processes has no such basis…

       
  3. Robert

    October 6, 2010 at 12:01 am

    Thank you as well for sharing your thoughts and experience.

    “we must (first) demonstrate that self-reference is an insufficient basis for ultimate meaning of reality.”
    I think we may agree here, but I am not sure. Could you explain in a little more detail what you mean?
    >>>By self-reference I mean the fact that we are not able to study ourselves objectively as if we are not part of the subject of study. We are not able to extract ourselves from that which we are studying. This is a huge problem for the atheist, in my opinion.

    “Reality is just a given, and questions about the “why” of reality are deemed irrelevant, unnecessary or not in order”
    First, I am not sure about this, as even atheists find themselves talking about “why things are the way they are” (i.e. this is what cosmological theories and evolutionary theories are all about!). Second, I think it is human nature that we can’t not ask why…
    >>> I should have expressed my thoughts clearer. I should have written, the “why”of reality beyond matter or nature, i.e. metaphysically. They may inquire why things are the way they are, but by definition the “why” for the atheist is always within the closed system of the reality.

    “But for the atheist this does not preclude meaning, nor make reality impersonal, *within* the context of this reality.”
    I would be interested in hearing about atheists who talk about meaning that is objective. I am not saying that they do not believe that the data they see in the world does not compel them to the conclusion (i.e. meaning) that life is fundamentally about, and based on particles and the laws those particles run by. This, of course, is what is objectively real. This is what the data in the world compels us to believe (this is the evidence that “demands a verdict”). This is what it must mean. I am talking about meaning in a different way: i.e. meaning and purpose in life. It seems to me that those who in their efforts to create beauty, justice, and meaning with some and not others, concluding that they should or must use whatever knowledge they can in order to exclude or eliminate those not of their group, or those they determine to be opposed to their group’s goals have a very shallow meaning indeed. For the atheist, I do not see how their “meaning” can not be something like I just said above.
    >>> “I am talking about meaning in a different way: i.e. meaning and purpose in life.” Yes I understood you. My point however is that the meaning and purpose of life within the closed system is for the atheist deemed sufficient and hence objective – however not metaphysically.

    “This I believe is an important distinction for I don’t think it is accurate to say for the naturalist that, “the personal realities of life are fundamentally false.” Reality can be as personal for the naturalist as for the theist. We differ however as to its meaning and purpose”
    Of course reality can be as personal for the naturalist as the theist. That is my point. It is. They simply, if they are logically consistent, must see that their “deeper view of reality”, i.e. that it is ultimately about the atoms, must be seriously lacking.
    >>> “their “deeper view of reality” must be seriously lacking” – please clarify why you think this is so.

    If you have no guidance and direction, you have no deeper meaning and purpose, right?
    >>> I don’t see how this logically follows. Meaning and purpose can only be obtained via guidance and direction? How do you hold this to be true? Please expound.

     
  4. Robert

    October 6, 2010 at 12:15 am

    Nathan,

    Fr. Freeman has a great post up at “Glory to God for All Things” – very apropos to our present discussion here,

    “The belief that the world has an existence and a meaning in and of itself and apart from God is the great heresy of the modern age. Its most insidious aspect is its claim to be simply the “natural” account of things – the true neutral ground where all philosophies, political voices and religions can meet. Modern Christianity has often accepted this invitation and argued only for a more visible seat at the table and a louder voice.”

    http://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/2010/10/05/the-end-of-religion/

     
  5. infanttheology

    October 6, 2010 at 1:00 am

    “My point however is that the meaning and purpose of life within the closed system is for the atheist deemed sufficient and hence objective – however not metaphysically.”

    I do not understand how a person can claim that there is objective meaning and purpose if there is no known purpose. If people create their own meaning – with those whom they choose to do this with – how is that in any sense “objective”. How are you defining objective?

    “please clarify [why their “deeper view of reality”, i.e. that it is ultimately about the atoms, must be seriously lacking]”. Robert, I’m not sure what to day. If everything ultimately comes down to unguided and undirected fundamental particles atoms and nothing but these how does this not mitigate any meaning a person may feel or experience? Again, how is life, from this perspective, not fundamentally impersonal? Is not death, from the perspective of the metaphysical naturalist, render life rather impersonal?

    “Meaning and purpose can only be obtained via guidance and direction? How do you hold this to be true?”

    Well, for one: “The belief that the world has an existence and a meaning in and of itself and apart from God is the great heresy of the modern age” As I said before, how can meaning and purpose arise from that which is fundamentally without meaning and purpose?

     
  6. Robert

    October 6, 2010 at 1:31 am

    The personal aspect and meaning of life can be experienced, objectively, really, by virtue of the fact that the atheist is a person. His existence and person he cannot deny. How this person came to be i.e. from particles of atoms, is deemed irrelevant to the atheist. And yet this is precisely the bone of contention. The theist places the “came to be” as the central question (and locus of the “answer”), whereas the atheist vehemently denies this. Do you see my point? Again this is why we have to be careful when we say that life is impersonal to the atheist, as this is not at all self evident to the atheist, hence my original comment.

    “How are you defining objective?” >>> exactly my point, we don’t share this definition in common with the atheist.

     
  7. infanttheology

    October 6, 2010 at 11:18 am

    Robert,

    “Again this is why we have to be careful when we say that life is impersonal to the atheist, as this is not at all self evident to the atheist”

    Notice how I ended my post:

    “Of course, this is getting very far away from the thoughts of children. I suggest that for them, reality is fundamentally personal.

    From the very beginning – from our first cries upon entering this temporal world – we discover that life is personal. Interaction with others is constant: we smile and look at one another, we make each other laugh, and we observe, study, and imitate those we admire and look up to. Through one another, we receive joy. And as Paul argued in Acts 14, seamlessly making the connection between the personal and the physical (or material): “Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” Gladness is no doubt created in part through the awe and wonder the created world around us produces – but it is even more so a product of the loving relationships that we have been blessed to know.

    How odd it would be if we were to discover that the closer we would examine this thing we call life, that it would reveal itself to be fundamentally made up of that which is impersonal.”

    How odd indeed – because it is totally at odds with our experience – what we know to be true! What we’ve known to be true since the very beginning! What I am trying to do in this post is to get the atheist to have to deal with this (also from my original post):

    “How can the personal be real, unless the impersonal is fundamentally changed into the personal?”

    In other words, I’m doing what you imply I should be doing: “The theist places the “came to be” as the central question (and locus of the “answer”), whereas the atheist vehemently denies this.” I’m just doing it from a different angle, perspective.

    Again, there is nothing “objective” about the atheist’s contention that they are a person. There world is completely self-constructed with no basis in reality. The idea that they have overcome the impersonal particles to create meaning with those whom they choose to associate – and that this meaning and “truth” – and that this can be held together by the sheer power of their will and ability to act on that will, is false. (see this post: https://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2009/10/27/self-made-men-vs-the-greatest-men/ ) Of course, they are even parasitic on the real world to do this…

     
  8. infanttheology

    October 6, 2010 at 11:20 am

    Correction:

    and that this meaning and “truth” can be held together by the sheer power of their will and ability to act on that will, is false.

     
  9. Robert

    October 6, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    Nathan,

    As I said from the beginning, my question is in regards to your conclusion that the personal for the atheist is fiction. From the atheist worldview this is not necessarily so; the logical fallacy here is the usage of theistic assumptions applied to the atheistic epistemological framework.

     
  10. Nathan

    October 6, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    Robert,

    Boy, I am just not really getting what you are talking about. We seem to be talking past each other and I’m not sure why. Are you saying in some way that perhaps I am being unfair to the atheist? I am saying that logically, using their own chosen epistemological framework and claims about the fundamental nature of reality (i.e. unguided and undirected processes, or impersonal processes, are *all* there is behind us and everything else), they undermine the reality of the personal. I am simply at a loss to understand how this isn’t the case.

    Sorry Robert – I really am not trying to be difficult. I just honestly don’t understand.

     
  11. Robert

    October 6, 2010 at 7:02 pm

    Nathan, I know you are not trying to be difficult, you have been terrific, more than a gentleman! My apologies for my poor communication skills.

    When you say “they undermine the reality of the personal” – this is only true *from the theistic* perspective. It does not follow for the atheist, that “their own chosen epistemological framework and claims about the fundamental nature of reality” necessitates fiction or the impersonal or falsity, *for them*. Hence, I question(ed) your original claim that “they must believe that the personal realities of life are fundamentally false”.
    I can’t speak for all atheists but when I was an atheist I experienced and believed life to be personal. Perhaps the best way for us is to ask a few atheists about this.

     
  12. infanttheology

    October 7, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    “It does not follow for the atheist, that “their own chosen epistemological framework and claims about the fundamental nature of reality” necessitates fiction or the impersonal or falsity, *for them*. Hence, I question(ed) your original claim that “they must believe that the personal realities of life are fundamentally false”.
    I can’t speak for all atheists but when I was an atheist I experienced and believed life to be personal. Perhaps the best way for us is to ask a few atheists about this.”

    Robert, I guess I am talking about logical consequences of premises. If persons don’t explicitly reflect on, and wrestle with, all the implications of their beliefs and presuppositions (think of a bunch of unconnected dots that represent their assumptions, which they may be more of *less* conscious of) It sounds to me that that is what it was like for you.

    Or does that not represent you accurately (in which case, I would be interested in knowing the logical arguments you would have used to speak of life as personal and meaningful, in spite of the arguments I’ve made).

    *for them*

    I would agree that, as a rule of thumb, it is better to deal with each individual person, and to not assume they believe this or that, but to draw out their real beliefs through sensitive questioning.

    On the other hand, with atheists today, it seems to me that are often quite devoted to very well-thought out and “logical” systematic constructs (and there is really not much original thinking). It seems to me that, in general, the most vocal at least, are leading many with their own “systematic theologies”, and have their own standard apologetic responses. It seems like atheism today, as a whole, in this scientific age, tends to be this way. They think – or seem to think they do – very logically.

    In any case each interaction with another human being will require the Spirit’s guiding – and much love, for Jesus looked at the rich young man “and loved him”….

     

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