Friday, May 26, 2017

Maybe Closer Than He Thinks

In his bestselling book A Brief History of Thought French humanist philosopher Luc Ferry asserts that the paramount philosophical question throughout the history of civilization has been the question of how we find meaning in life when death looms for all of us.

He calls this the question of "salvation," and in his book he surveys the answers proffered by the ancient Stoics, Christians, Enlightenment thinkers, Nietzsche and the post-moderns, and comes, after much meandering, to the disappointingly tepid conclusion that salvation consists in loving others until we die. In considering others, he argues, we achieve a kind of transcendence without the metaphysical baggage of God.

Ferry himself anticipates the complaint that his conclusion is unsatisfying:
You might object that compared to the doctrine of Christianity - whose promise of the resurrection of the body means that we shall be reunited with those we love after death - a humanism without metaphysics is small beer. I grant you that amongst the available doctrines of salvation, nothing can compete with Christianity - provided, that is, that you are a believer.
So why does Ferry settle for what is really a hopeless, meaningless "humanism without metaphysics"? Because he simply can't, or won't, bring himself to believe that there's more to reality than matter and energy:
If one is not a believer - and one cannot force oneself to believe, nor pretend to believe - then we must learn to think differently about the ultimate question posed by all doctrines of salvation, namely that of the death of a loved one.
Ferry is correct, of course, that one cannot compel belief, either in oneself or another, but what he might be asked is whether he sincerely wants the Christian message to be true. Regardless of his disbelief, does he hope that he's wrong? Many if not most people who claim not to believe that we'll in some sense exist beyond death and that "we shall be reunited with those we love after death" by their own admission do not want such a notion to be true. They don't believe the Christian proclamation, and they don't want the world to be the sort of place where such claims are in fact correct.

The prominent philosopher Thomas Nagel provides us with a good example of this. In his book The Last Word, Nagel writes these words:
In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself.

I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.
I suspect that the person, on the other hand, who wants theism to be true, who is open to belief in God, is much more likely to find belief slowly creeping over him than those others whom C.S. Lewis describes in The Great Divorce as having, "their fists clenched, their teeth clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouths for food, or their eyes to see." They refuse to allow themselves even to hope that there really is salvation in the Christian sense.

Ferry doesn't seem to be this sort of person, though. He writes at the end of his book:
I find the Christian proposition infinitely more tempting [than any of the alternatives] - except for the fact that I do not believe in it. But were it to be true I would certainly be a taker.
He seems to recognize, even though he doesn't explicitly say it, that unless what we do in this life matters forever, it doesn't matter at all. If death is the end of individual existence then nothing we do has any genuine meaning or significance.

If Ferry's being honest with his readers and himself, if he really is open to "the Christian proposition," then I suspect he's closer to faith than he might realize.