Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Adventures in the Old Atheism, Part III: Freud

Our sojourn among the Old Atheists was briefer than I’d intended.  To my great surprise, I see that the previous installment in this series dates from roughly the middle of 2016!  So let’s make a return visit.  Our theme has been the tendency of the best-known Old Atheists to show greater insight vis-à-vis the consequences of atheism than we find in their shallow New Atheist descendants.  This was true of Nietzsche and of Sartre, and it is true of Sigmund Freud.  So lay back on the couch and light up a cigar.  And before you start speculating about what hidden meaning lay behind my sudden return to this topic, remember: Sometimes a blog post is just a blog post.

Mechanism and mind

Modern atheism is more than just the denial of God’s existence.  It is closely associated with a conception of nature as a vast, meaningless mechanism – to a first approximation, as nothing more than particles in motion, pushing and pulling against one another the way the metal parts of a machine might, but without any purpose of the kind that the machines we construct have. 

As I have often emphasized, the more precise way of spelling out this mechanical world picture is to start with its rejection of the essentialism and teleology that were central to the Aristotelian conception of nature that early modern philosophy and science replaced.  For the Aristotelian, as for common sense, there is a sharp and objective difference in kind between stone, water, trees, grass, dogs, cats, and all other natural objects.  Each of these things has its own distinctive essence or nature, which the human mind discovers rather than invents.  But the mechanical world picture treats them instead as just superficially different arrangements of the same one basic stuff.  There is no sharp essence or nature of being a tree or a dog per se.  These are just loosely cobbled together arrangements of particles.

For the Aristotelian, as for common sense, there are also ends or goals toward which things naturally aim or point, given their essences.  Water aims at being liquid at room temperature, trees aim at sinking roots and growing leaves, dogs aim at eating and mating and running about, and so on.  But for the mechanical world picture, such aiming or teleology is illusory.  Objectively, nothing really aims at or points at or is for anything.

In short, the idea that anything has a natural purpose is an illusion, because natures and purposes are illusions.  Now, few thinkers push this idea through with total consistency.  Indeed, it cannot be made totally consistent, though eliminative materialists like Alex Rosenberg give it the old college try.  The Aristotelians were right, as I argue constantly and in ever greater depth.  The point for the moment, though, is that whether they work out its implications consistently or not, modern atheists tend to be committed to this general mechanical view of nature.

Now, perhaps if you could instead marry atheism to some broadly Aristotelian view of nature, as Thomas Nagel flirts with doing, then you could end up with an optimistic view of the human condition.  Perhaps you could maintain the idea that human beings have an essence, that there is as a matter of objective fact an end or point toward which human beings aim given that essence, and that this can give human life meaning and purpose even in the absence of God. 

But what you can’t do is to defend such an optimistic position given the mechanical world picture.  If the mechanical world picture is correct, then there is no reason to believe that a human being is anything more than a roughly cobbled together aggregate, like the random pile of junk you collect from around the house and quickly toss into a closet in anticipation of guests arriving, or like the heap of various unrelated bits of debris you find on the beach after a hurricane.  There is no reason to think that the parts of human nature can ever cohere, and there can certainly be no point or purpose to human existence that isn’t an entirely made-up one (given the assumption that there are no purposes at all). 

Accordingly, any atheism that is informed by the mechanical world picture must, if it is realistic and honest, take a tragic and pessimistic view of human existence.  There ought to be no delusional happy talk of the kind that (as we saw in an earlier post in this series) one sometimes finds coming from New Atheists like Richard Dawkins. 

Reality principles

Which brings us to Freud.  The popular image of the father of psychoanalysis has it that he thought human happiness could be secured if only we would free ourselves of stifling repressions, especially regarding sex.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact Freud believed that human beings were likely doomed always to be unhappy, and that this was probably the inevitable price of our enjoying the benefits of civilization.

This is famously the theme of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, wherein he avers that “the intention that man should be ‘happy’ is not included in the plan of ‘Creation’” (p. 43).  As maturity brings one to follow the sober “reality principle” more than the “pleasure principle,” one will find that merely avoiding pain and suffering as far as one can – as opposed to finding positive fulfillment – is the best that can be hoped for.  “[T]he idea of life having a purpose stands and falls with the religious system” (p. 42), Freud says, and since (he thinks) religion is an illusion, there can be no purpose to life and thus nothing the realization of which could bring genuine happiness.

Intellectual pursuits like science and art can provide a few people with some consolation, but the majority of human beings cannot appreciate these things and will likely always need the illusion of religion (pp. 39-41).  And even so, though science and technology have made modern man “almost become a god himself,” they have not thereby produced happiness (p. 66).  Work, too, can provide only relatively few people with satisfaction, and for most people is merely a necessity rather than a source of fulfillment (p. 49). 

The three main sources of our unhappiness are, in Freud’s view, natural forces that lie outside our control, the weaknesses of our bodies, and frustration with the ways we relate to other human beings (p. 57).  The idea that civilization is the source of our unhappiness, and a return to primitive conditions the remedy for it, strikes Freud as “strange,” even “astonishing” (p.58).  In fact it is only civilization that allows us to mitigate the sources of suffering to the extent that we can.  Enmity against civilization and nostalgia for pre-civilized times is rooted in resentment at the frustration of desire that civilization entails:

[I]t is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposes precisely the non-satisfaction (by suppression, repression or some other means?) of powerful instincts.  This ‘cultural frustration’ dominates the large field of social relationships among human beings.  As we already know, it is the cause of the hostility against which all civilizations have to struggle. (p. 75)

Prominent among these frustrated desires are those concerned with sexual relationships, for “civilization threatens love with substantial restrictions” (p. 83).  Needless to say, Freud is no traditional moralist, but neither is he politically correct.  “Women represent the interests of the family and of sexual life,” he says, whereas a man is drawn by the demands of modern civilization ever further away from home and family to the world of work, to the extent that these demands “even estrange him from his duties as a husband and father” (p. 84).  Hence, Freud judges, women are on that account likely to resent civilization. 

Civilization has also tended to confine sexual activity to intercourse between one man and one woman within marriage (even if it sometimes winks at transgressions), and this is another source of frustration (pp. 85-86).  Famously, Freud thinks that repressed sexual desire is a source of neuroses, which can be eliminated by indulging rather than repressing the desire.  At the same time, he says:

Sometimes one seems to perceive that it is not only the pressure of civilization but something in the nature of the function itself which denies us full satisfaction and urges us along other paths.  This may be wrong; it is hard to decide. (p. 87)

This last remark illustrates Freud’s tendency often to put things tentatively.  He isn’t sure that sexual dissatisfaction has something to do with the nature of sex itself rather than merely with the repressions of civilization, but he also isn’t sure that it doesn’t.  He even finds it “very understandable” that some would propose that civilization’s restrictions on sexual indulgence “cannot be averted or turned aside and [are something] to which it is best for us to yield as though they were necessities of nature” (pp. 148-9), though he also says that he isn’t certain this is really the case.  In any event, he does not regard sexual indulgence as a panacea.

Another key instinct that civilization represses is aggression.  Freud thinks it a delusion to suppose that this can ever be eliminated from the human condition:

[M]en are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. (p. 94)

For this reason, he regards the psychological assumptions underlying communism as an “untenable illusion” (p. 97).  Competitiveness and aggression were not created by the institution of private property, and if that institution were abolished they would simply manifest themselves in some other way.  Abolishing all restraints on sexual desire, and the family along with it, will not eliminate the “indestructible feature” of aggression either (p. 98).  Any group of human beings, no matter how affectionate toward one another, will always find some other group at which to direct hostility.  Communists themselves manifest this tendency in their hatred of the bourgeois (pp. 99-100).  (In a recent post I proposed my own explanation for the paradox that people prone to sentimental chatter about love and peace are often extremely nasty themselves.) 

The bottom line, for Freud, is that while primitive man was freer to indulge his instinctive sexual and aggressive drives, he also did not live long enough to enjoy this freedom much, and was subject to other restrictions (p. 100).  The security and other benefits of civilization require some repression of instinct and the frustration this entails, and we should “familiarize ourselves with the idea that there are difficulties attaching to the nature of civilization which will not yield to any attempt at reform” (p. 101).

An attractive feature of Freud’s Old Atheism, then, is its realism and sobriety.  Science, art, work, a return to primitive living, sexual indulgence, an ethic of nonviolence, socialism, the abandonment of religion – none of these are going to bring human happiness or otherwise substitute for the meaning that religion promised.  Neither Burning Man festivals, nor Reason Rallies, nor Bernie Sanders can save us.  Deal with it.

Ego trip

Freud famously cribs from Plato, transforming the latter’s distinction between the desiring, spirited, and rational parts of the soul into the distinction between id, ego, and super-ego.  That is not to say that the distinction is exactly the same, but it is similar.  Moreover, a naturalist like Freud is bound to get certain important things wrong, especially where the nature of rationality is concerned.  All the same, you can’t go too far wrong starting from Plato’s classic distinction.  Freud also has some interesting things to say about the social influences on the formation of the super-ego – particularly his analysis of it as a kind of voice of the father figure.  And, let’s face it, id, ego, and super-ego just sounds cooler than desiring part, spirited part, and rational part.

Another merit of Freud’s psychology is its anti-reductionism.  Of course, Freud was highly prone to reductionism in one sense, insofar as he tried to account for vast swaths of human behavior in terms of the instincts for sexual indulgence and aggression.  That was one of his great errors.  But he nevertheless resisted psychological reductionism in the metaphysical sense of supposing that descriptions at the psychological level could be reduced to, or eliminated in favor of, descriptions at the physiological level.  That doesn’t mean he was a metaphysical dualist – of course he was not – but he was nevertheless skeptical of the idea that in the analysis of human nature, physiology is privileged.  He complained that:

The medical profession had been educated to esteem highly only anatomical, physical, and chemical factors….They clearly doubted that psychic things admit of any exact scientific treatment… In this materialistic – or better: mechanistic – period medicine made magnificent advances, but also failed myopically to recognize the noblest and most difficult problems of life. (Quoted in Walter Kaufmann, Discovering the Mind, Volume 3: Freud, Adler, and Jung, p. 55)

And again:

I always envy the physicists and mathematicians who can stand on firm ground.  I hover, so to speak, in the air.  Mental events seem to me immeasurable and probably always will be. (Ibid., p. 100)

The area where Freud was least interesting was his analysis of religion.  Not because he was an atheist, and not because of his tone or anything like that.  (He was certainly peremptory and condescending, but he was not shrill or sophomoric after the fashion of a New Atheist.)  The reason is just that what he has to say typically has the flavor of anticlimactic out-of-left-field speculation.  For example, all the stuff in Totem and Taboo about religion’s purported origin in a primitive band of brothers killing and eating their father and then feeling guilty about it, is just cringemakingly silly.  Even Walter Kaufmann, a more serious and interesting critic of religion who is otherwise sometimes effusive in his praise of Freud, regarded Freud’s writings on religion as subpar.  (Cf. Kaufmann, Discovering the Mind, Volume 3, Chapter 32)

In fairness, though, here too Freud sets an example of intellectual honesty that his New Atheist successors would do well to follow.  About Totem and Taboo, Freud once said: “Oh, don’t take that seriously – I made that up on a rainy Sunday afternoon” (quoted in Anthony Storr, Freud, at p. 86).  You could say the same thing about pretty much the entire New Atheist literature, with one exception. 


  1. You mentioned it so it's not of topic; 'The Aristotelians were right, as I argue constantly and in ever greater depth.'

    My copy should arrive tomorrow 😁

    1. Where were you able to purchase a copy?

    2. (I'm in Britain).

      It's a great book. You will have read expositions on Aristotelian philosophy in his books TLS, Aquinas and 5PFTEG. But Aristotle's revenge outstrips them in how it is both to the point and straight shooting but so good at actually explaining the concepts. This is all in the first chapter, if you want to recommend a book of Feser's to someone to understand A-T philosophy and they are philosophically minded (and so will be looking for something for substantial than TLS or Aquinas) it would have to be this book.

    3. The book is available now through European outlets. It should be available through U.S. outlets like Amazon within a few weeks. The reason for the delay is that the publisher is in the middle of changing U.S. distributors. When the book is available through U.S. outlets I'll announce it here at the blog.

    4. Oh, and thanks, AJ!

      Readers can find a complete table of contents, blurbs, etc. here:

    5. My pleasure. I'm one of the army of people you've influenced (and persuaded) with regards to philosophy and so I couldn't thank you enough. Being a blog that defends both theism and Christianity you rightly get plaudits for your work (and for making it so accessible!).

      I've seen this often said by others (again, rightly so) but I feel you should be getting far more compliments as a teacher than you already do. Both your books and this blog are just so good at explaining philosophy. I suspect you'll have more than a few blog readers who completely disagree with you but still appreciate someone who both knows and describes the major issues in philosophy. This really helps people, especially those who didn't take the chance to take philosophy classes at university. So keep going! That quote from Kenny at the top of this blog ain't far wrong. You've got a gift for writing philosophy, even better than Searle! (I hope you get the reference).

  2. Since this is about human happiness and teleology of biology, I have to ask:

    What is the Thomistic position on the idea of using genetic manipulation and technology to make humans practically immortal?

    It is well known that there are certain animal species such as some jellyfish and lobsters that can in principle live indefinitely, if only the conditions were just right. And we even know what parts of the human genome regulate aging and that it can be turned off so that we could stay young forever. Further advances in technology may also be able to protect our bodies from external injury, thereby giving further support to our practical immortality.

    But what exactly would natural law say about such an endevour? It is common sense that prolongin life and acting to prevent injury is morally good, but what about doing this permanently?

    Does such a thing contradict Thomistic Christian morality? Or can it be accepted?

    1. I could be wrong, but I'd tentatively answer that this wouldn't be immoral. Nonetheless one can ask whether it is prudent to aim to live forever in a fallen world, and if it is licit for this technology to be accessible to some people but not others (given capitalism) and so on.

    2. Actually ["Catholic"] bioethics already has dealt with the issue of artificially prolonging a life. In some cases it is certainly immoral, but people usually are considering modern medical interventions that would result in entirely artificial preservation (say, to give an extreme example, using an artificial heart/lungs and giving all nutrients and water intravenously when the brain has died etc.).

  3. I feel like there's a communication gap here. Or at least, the author (hello Prof. Feser) doesn't anticipate potential objections to his otherwise interesting arguments.

    Can someone explain to me what's the difference between "X aims at Y" and "X does Y"?

    I don't know any atheist who would deny that the phenomenons mentioned (water being liquid at a certain temperature, etc.) are actual facts of nature.

    Water "simply is" liquid at room temperature, and really has no choice about being otherwise. Water was and always will be liquid at a certain pressure and temperature. Doesn't everyone accept this? It's the first postulate of special relativity: physics works the same everywhere.

    On the "essence" question, I feel there's a false dichotomy being made.

    Materialism is obviously inspired by the physical discovery that everything we see really is composed of atoms, on a technical level.

    But it's also a fact that different structures have their distinct behaviors, perfectly consistent with the underlying materials, yet being more than the sum of their parts (that is, exhibiting behaviors that aren't present in their components).

    Even in a system as simple as Conway's "Game of Life" cellular automaton there are things that happen without being explicitly specified in the fundamental "rules" of the game. No materialist I know would deny that it makes sense to speak, in the context of the Conway's automaton, of "replicating structures" that move in certain "directions", even though there's nothing about "structures", "replication", "movement" and "direction" explicitly articulated in the fundamental building blocks.

    This is what I understand the denial of "essences" to mean, in the materialist perspective: *not* that "there's no such thing as a dog". Obviously a dog is a dog and a wolf is a wolf. They are both groups of organisms that exhibit objectively identifiable characteristics. But on the continuum between wolf and dog, was there any point where there was a sudden transition from wolf essence to dog essence?

    The materialist position, as I understand it, is that "no, there wasn't". Yes, there really are objective facts about the different species which make them both *act* distinctly (forming groups and breeding within the group) and *be recognized* as distinct. But there's no cutoff point in the continuum where one individual is of "type X" while its nearly identical neighbor is of "type Y".

    Despite that fact, groups that live in actual ecosystems are going to distinguish themselves and give rise to distinct species (you're never going to have the entire wolf-to-dog continuum living at the same time in the same place).

    Why does a dog bark? If the answer is "because of its essence", the materialist would say: "no, it's because it has barking organs, and those barking organs sound a certain way because they have a certain shape and are made of a certain substances which resonate a certain way". The materialist answer may be incomplete, but would it be wrong on the technical details?

    Is it possible for the same physical structures to sound otherwise than the way they do? If someone assembled a dog atom by atom, would it not sound the same when it barked?

    I happen to think the materialist explanation is incomplete, but for other reasons which I won't go into now.

    1. Hear hear, especially about the dog-wolf continuum.

      If evolution is true, then all species are on a continuum. Although clear boundaries appear at any given time, when we consider the full evolutionary history there is only a smooth and branching continuum between human, pig, dinosaur, fish, tree, alga, bacterium, etc. How does the Aristotelian-Thomist doctrine of essences deal with that? If all living things are on a smooth continuum, then is not all life a single essence?

    2. «If evolution is true, then all species are on a continuum.»

      Not necessarily. Evolution is but the change in allele frequency in a population over time, but small, incremental changes in genes can cross islands of fitness, and those islands of fitness are not on a continuum, they're separated by a "sea" (to continue the metaphor) of neutral or deleterious mutations and their effects. And the genetic mutations themselves needn't be gradual, but can occur rapidly, so that one needn't find any transitional species. This is basically Gould's theory of punctuated equilibrium.

      While I am sympathetic to the notion that the distinctions we make between species like dogs and cats or birches and oaks are arbitrary, there is surely a real and irreducible distinction between vegetative and sensitive life on the one hand, and sensitive and rational life on the other. Three essences suffice here, I think. Evolution doesn't threaten this, because small changes at the genetic level can cause large changes at the level of the living organism.

    3. I don't think that the continuum proves that "all life is a single essence".

      An even clearer example: say you moved from color yellow to color red in very small increments. Any two adjacent colors may be indistinguishable from one another, but once you look at where you started from, you clearly observe it's different from where you ended up.

      There's a real difference between red and yellow, even though if you zoom in to the continuum between them you'll be unable to spot the difference between any pair of neighbors.

      If you zoom out, you can cluster distinct areas of the continuum to say that these ones are "the same thing".

  4. "X aims at Y": it does what it does even when nobody is looking. A cat sees and this is the same for any observer.

    "X does Y": may or may not be externally imposed. A clock keeps time, but it's just bits of metal that requires an interpreter.

    1. Cogniblog, when I considered myself a materialist, I always thought that "X does Y" means that "X always does Y", even when nobody is looking, and for all observers involved.

      Maybe I wasn't a "true" materialist? My materialism was common sense + the knowledge that stuff is made out of atoms. And I suspect this is the case for most non-specialist atheists who call themselves materialists.

      The clock example is interesting. I'd say, in agreement with my former materialist self, that we use clocks to measure time because there's an objective relation between its behavior and a natural phenomenon we use as reference as a time unit. (e.g. the hour dial makes two trips around the circle in a day).

      Of course, the clock itself wouldn't know it was measuring time. But it would still work exactly the same even if nobody was around.

      I mentioned I'm no longer a materialist and here's why. I believe that even before there were people or clocks, it was still an objective fact that structures like you and me, made out of atoms could use a clock, made out of atoms, to measure time.

      My non-materialism consists partially in the belief that it makes sense to consider every possible physical structure and the relations between them as somehow "predefined", even when the structures aren't manifest in the world).

      Does any of this make sense or does it seem like gobbledygook? I'm being so verbose in the hope of bridging a communication gap.

  5. Cogniblog, when I considered myself a materialist, I always thought that "X does Y" means that "X always does Y", even when nobody is looking, and for all observers involved.

    Sometimes what something does is not inherent in the object. The constellations don't tell you what year it is. YOU have to interpret a certain constellation as being mid-March. By contrast NOBODY has to interpret whether an acorn grows into an oak tree. It's inherent.

    1. "NOBODY has to interpret whether an acorn grows into an oak tree. It's inherent."

      Correct! And what's the opposite claim being made on the materialist end of things?

      Would a committed philosophical materialist position imply that it's not certain that an acorn would grow into an oak tree?

      I always presumed that everyone agreed with the fact that acorns grow into trees. Of course, the acorn doesn't know what a tree is, but it grows into one nonetheless.

      The materialist bias may be, in my opinion, that while the acorn-to-tree transition is acknowledged, it's *only* viewed "from the perspective of the electrons", so only in terms of describing the fundamental physics of it all.

      This isn't that much of a deal with acorns because you're not missing much, I think, but it does become an issue when you get to more advanced and abstract entities and phenomenons.

    2. Congratulations, Anon., you completely missed the point. Cogniblog was explaining the difference between ‘X aims at Y’ and ‘X does Y’. Let’s try phrasing it another way, and see if it gets through:

      ‘X does Y’ includes two possible cases—

      1. X does Y of its own accord, and if any purpose is involved, it is X’s own purpose. This is what is meant by ‘X aims at Y’. An acorn aims at growing into an oak tree.

      2. X does Y because it is used for that purpose by Z. A constellation (to use Cogniblog’s example) does not cause the seasons to change, but its position can be used by human observers for the purpose of telling what time of year it is. It conveys information, but only if there is an observer looking for such information. The constellation is not aimed at indicating the season.

    3. I think I got it, so by "X aims at Y" you mean that X (the acorn) produces effect Y "through its own powers and by itself" (growing into a tree).

      So you use the verb "to aim" to describe a deterministic state change (at t0 there's an "acorn", at t1 there's a "grown tree").

      By "X does Y" (without X aiming at Y) you mean that "X (constellations) is used by Z (people) for the purpose of Y (knowing the time of year)".

      Here, the verb "to do" is used to describe something involving two phenomena (constellations moving across the sky and seasons succeeding one another), and a third agent that relates the two for its own use (time measurement).

      Maybe I'm just not used to the language, but I've always understod "to do" to mean exactly what you denote by "to aim".

      In physics when a ball is rolling down an inclined plane I'd use the verb "to do" (the ball does something: it rolls). You'd say the ball is "aiming at" rolling?

      If a physicist does an experiment with the rolling ball and a stopwatch, I'd still say that:
      - The ball does the rolling.
      - The stopwatch hand does the spinning.
      - The physicist does the experiment (by relating the two above).

      I might say "the clock measures how long it takes the ball to get to the bottom of the inclined plane", but only as a shorthand for saying that the physicist uses it to measure that.

      And I think this is how people would generally express what's going on. Hence my confusion with "to aim".

  6. I really liked Jonathan Lear's book on Aristotle. Anybody read his book on Freud?

  7. Ultimately, why are atheists atheists? It's such an ironic position to take, trying to find meaning in a meaningless existence.

    1. I can try to explain that. It all comes from how one understands what God is.

      In the materialistic worldview, the ultimate origin of everything that exists is simply considered to be some kind of unknown/unknowable fundamental physics, while gods of all kind are considered answers that people came up with because "they didn't know any better" when it came to explaining how nature works.

      Notice that this view starts off from the assumption that gods are nature gods, powerful yet limited beings, who maybe live on the top of mountains and are responsible for various phenomenons in nature. So an atheist thinks all religion is like Greek mythology, and that being an atheist is simply to state that such beings don't exist.

      There's really nothing more to it. The question of meaning makes no sense for an atheist, because he'd say "what does meaning have to do with the existence of a big guy throwing lightning bolts from atop a mountain in Greece?". And of course, he'd be right.

      Ultimately atheism originates in not understanding the idea of a transcendent God.

    2. That is a straw man version of atheism. Of course there are atheists who do not understand the meaning of a transcendent god.
      But, there are also plenty of theists who have the same problem.
      On the other hand, there are also atheists who understand that even a transcendent god doesn't entail that existence has any real meaning, while atheism, properly understood does not entail that existence hasn't got any real meaning.

    3. Walter:

      1.) It's not a straw man.
      2.) You didn't answer my question.

      Finding any purpose is not the same as sharing the same purpose. What the heck is the "properly understood" form of atheism? There is none because no authority exists to dole it out. You just pointed this out yourself by saying that some atheists "do not understand the meaning of a transcendent god", then you said that there are atheists who "properly" understand (whatever the heck that means) atheism and it is these proper atheists who do understand that there is real meaning (again, whatever the heck that meaning is. Do they understand the meaning of a transcendent god? You are all over the map here.)

      The only thing in common with atheists is a belief that there is no god. After that, anything goes, because there is no higher authority to guide them. it's up to the individual atheist to find meaning in anything and everything, or not.

      Since the latter half of my comment has thrown you for a loop, stick with the question you didn't answer. I didn't think it would be a tough one: why are atheists atheists?

    4. Ernest

      I didn't answer your question because I was actually replying to Anonymous who was repeating the worn-out classical theist mantra that atheist do not understand what classical theists mean by God and that thye are attacking gods that classical theists don't believe in.
      I was simply pointing out that, while this may be true for some atheists, there are also some who do understand classical theism and reject it because it is incoherent.
      And that answers your question. Thoseatheists are atheists because they, like classical theists, find that a "big guy throwing lightning bolts" doesn't add meaning but who also find that an simple and immutable being doesn't add meaning unless meaning is a necessary component of reality.

    5. "there are also some who do understand classical theism and reject it because it is incoherent."

      Incoherent in what way? I was an agnostic-atheist precisely because I understood God to be an optional (non-necessary) "big person" out there in the Universe, which magically intervened in events.

      Once I learned what classical theism really states, I immediately realized that it's unavoidably true. Care to point out what you believe the incoherence is?

      "an simple and immutable being doesn't add meaning unless meaning is a necessary component of reality."

      Since God (in classical theism) is the source of all reality, any meaning we experience is going to necessarily originate from God. It makes no sense to talk of "reality" as independent from God and imposing constraints upon Him.

      If our lives have meaning, we have it and it's from God. This doesn't say anything about whether he "had to" give us meaning.

      If God "had to" give us meaning, it's because meaning-giving is part of God's nature. If God didn't "have to", but we have meaning nonetheless, it's still from God.

      Perhaps we need to go into what we mean by "meaning"?

      When I was an atheist, by "meaning" I understood the subjective feeling that "life is worth living", and I attributed it to the fact that we're basically built to want to continue living, since this was a selection factor in evolution (any individual who doesn't feel like life is worth living is less likely to become an ancestor).

      For theists, as I understand, meaning is related to a specific and universal end-goal, target, or purpose in our lives: to get ever-closer to God, as described by Irenaeus of Lyons and Athanasius of Alexandria.

    6. Anonymous

      I understand that you were an agnostic-atheist for the wrong reasons.
      If you, like me, had been an atheist for the "right" reasons, you would still be an atheist.

      What is incoherent about classical theism is difficult to explain in a post, but I'll give you one reason why classical theism is incoherent: an immutable being can't be "the source" of anything.
      Moreover, even if God could be the source of something, He cannot be the source of the whole of reality, because He is not the source of himself. So God cannot be the source of God's "meaning".
      Finally, an end-goal or target is still subjective. Libertarian free creatures do not "have to" get ever-closer to God. Getting closer to God only has meaning for those who want to get closer to God, so it is also a subjective feeling.

    7. Walter, two things:

      1.) Replying to my comment, which already had a reply under it, without distinguishing who the heck you were talking, only adds to the confusion.

      2.) You STILL didn't answer the question. Saying that religion is for morons, doesn't tell me anything about an atheist himself, other than how smarmy that atheist is about others who don't think like him. And by "others who don't think like him" I mean "the atheist has to resort to a cartoon version of religion because the atheist can't argue his way out of a paper bag."

      You again mention those proper-thinking atheists? As opposed to the bad-thinking atheists? My religious journey has not been the same as Edward Feser's, but his ability to show how horrible all atheists are at thinking things through is 100% accurate. You're not going a good job here.

      I find it amusing that atheists have trouble answering with logical authority what should be the most fundamental, Big Picture question of their entire POV.

      Funnier than that: atheists try to justify their POV as the most rational one, when there is no logical reason to do so based on the rules of their own POV. Finding meaning in a meaningless void....sweet irony of ironies.

      If it (everything) doesn't matter, why does it (anything, including trumpeting how rationally awesome you are) matter?

    8. Walter clearly doesn't know what incoherent means, and that it is different from simply being wrong. Given his basic confusion, why should anyone take him as an authority on philosophy and classical theism, such that without a full explanation one should care about his opinion of classical theism and it's supposed defects?

    9. «libertarian-free creatures do not have to get ever-closer to God»

      Not in a metaphysically necessary sense, maybe. But they do have to get ever-closer to God, in a deontologically necessary sense. For in order to be perfectly rational (and therefore, perfectly moral), one needs to become like God. And it is necessary to desire to be perfectly rational, because being rational is the condition of all possible ends we might choose to have.

    10. Ernest

      I have never said religion is for morons. And I did answer your question. You may not like the answer, but that doesn't mean it's not an answer.


      I have never claimed to be an authority on philosophy or classical theism. I simply pointed out to you that you are making the same basic mistake that you blame atheists for. There are different versions of atheism, just as there are different versions of theism, and not all brands of atheism start from the sauumption that "all religion is like Greek mythology, and that being an atheist is simply to state that such beings don't exist."

      BTW, Nobody should take anybody as an authority.

      Sri Nahar

      Deontology is subjective. Assuming for the sake of the argument that libertarian free will is coherent, there is no rule anyone has to follow unless they want to follow that rule. And if desiring to be perfectly rational is necessary, then it is necessary regardless of whether God exist or not.

  8. For the Aristotelian, as for common sense, there is a sharp and objective difference in kind between stone, water, trees, grass, dogs, cats, and all other natural objects. Each of these things has its own distinctive essence or nature

    Shouldn't stone be excluded from here, maybe water too.They seem like an accidental unity/ heap.

  9. “Accordingly, any atheism that is informed by the mechanical world picture must, if it is realistic and honest, take a tragic and pessimistic view of human existence.“

    Sounds to me like a perfectly reasonable view. Meaning and truth are as really artifacts for whatever uses people choose, as any artifacts uncovered by archaeologists.

    The problem with Christianity is that far too much of it builds on far too slight a foundation. When one is dealing with a richly dogmatic and doctrinally articulate version of it like Roman Catholicism, the absurdity is greatly increased: like Otus and Ephialtes in Greek myth, RC dogmaticians pile the Mount Pelion of RC dogmas upon the Mt Ossa of New Testament Christianity, and that in turn upon the Mt Olympus of Old Testament religion.

    The result is something *extremely* wobbly. Modern atheism is a hurricane blowing down this delicately-poised house of cards. The repeated and inveterate practical atheism of so many of the RCC’s bishops is the finishing touch - they show themselves to be not only not Christian pastors, but not even decent human beings. It is impossible to take seriously the exceedingly lofty theological claims of the RCC, when those who are allegedly successors of the Apostles behave like the worst kind of atheist.

    1. Except the foundation is not just the New and Old Testaments, but a rich and eminently defensible philosophical view in which God, essence, the immateriality of the soul, objective morality, and intrinsic teleology can be apodeictically shown to exist. Not only does this militate against atheism (which Ed and others have shown cannot account for even the most basic features of the world), but it provides a framework in which Christianity, or at least something very much LIKE Christianity, must be true.

    2. The repeated and inveterate practical atheism of so many of the RCC’s bishops is the finishing touch - they show themselves to be not only not Christian pastors, but not even decent human beings. It is impossible to take seriously the exceedingly lofty theological claims of the RCC, when those who are allegedly successors of the Apostles behave like the worst kind of atheist.

      Interesting take on it. OK, that's looking at some of the dishonest of the bishops and followers of Christ. Now go to the other end, and look at some of the holy ones: St. Francis, who gave up family wealth to become destitute, and who preached poverty and humility for the sake of God. Take Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who took care of the poor, homeless, and ill of the untouchables, out of love for Christ. Take St. John Vianney, who lived an abstemious life to devote himself to saying the Mass and hearing confessions for 18 hours a day, and had lines of people waiting. (Same for St. Padre Pio). Take St. Katherine Drexler, who also gave up huge family fortune to found schools and orphanages for Indians. These men and women not only truly believed the Christian faith, they lived it, and their lives shine as light from heaven, an image of what man can be when illumined from above. I'll match up these saints, who are so much more than merely "decent", who are rather the very standard for excellence in humanity, against those decent bishops who are practical atheists!

  10. Corrigendum:

    Let “…the absurdity is greatly…”


    “…the sense of absurdity and incongruity is greatly…

  11. "For example, all the stuff in Totem and Taboo about religion’s purported origin in a primitive band of brothers killing and eating their father and then feeling guilty about it, is just cringemakingly silly."

    Is it though? Many anthorpologists have said that it may capture something. Levi-Strauss certainly thought so - he also saw the Oedipus Complex as similar to the universal taboo on incest.

    T&T and M&M are anthropological works. Just look at Freud's references. Are they 'correct'? Probably not. Are they 'silly'? Seriously doubtful.

    1. Given that there is absolutely no evidence of the actual origin of religion, no evidence of primitive patrophagy, and no conceivable way that any evidence of either could be found, yes, it is cringemakingly silly. Freud has told two lies in one – a lie simpliciter, and a lie by implicature: first, that this just-so story explains how religion got started, and second, that he has any way of knowing the facts of the matter.

    2. It was (famously) very harshly reviewed by anthropologists even at the time and it's not uncommon to find them applying to it phrases like "fantasy" and "useless" and "just-so story" (Tom's assessment of it as such was already being applied to it by an anthropologist of no less stature than R. R. Marett).

      I once, in graduate school, tutored for a philosophy of religion class in which the professor had assigned Totem and Taboo as reading. My memory is hazy, but I definitely remember I had a devil of a time trying to relate it to anything in real anthropology, since even when Freud drew closest to the anthropology of even his own day, the relation was more a matter of analogy and metaphor than anything definite; I think I might have ended up taking an idea from a comment by Dorothy Sayers and recommending that students in my tutorial just read it as an allegorical fable giving Freud's picture of the psychology of religion.

    3. Actually, now that I think of it, although Sayers may have been a mix, I could also have gotten the idea from Levi-Strauss, who says something like it in his discussion of how Totem and Taboo is a failure in The Elementary Structures of Kinship. (Looking over that discussion again it's notable that while it's far more positive than some of the reviews of the work, it nonetheless clearly puts Totem and Taboo forward as an example of how not to do anthropology.)

  12. Prof. Feser, if you decide to continue the "Adventures in Old Atheism" into the future, could you possibly write a post on David Hume, and another one on Karl Marx?

  13. We often see atheists trying to claim that we can live meaningfully despite that fact that life actually has no meaning. Of course this is a contradictory position, but that doesn't stop people from asserting it. You see it in someone like Albert Camus. In his famous essay The Myth of Sisyphus, He tells us that even though life is meaningless, we can still find identity and satisfaction once we acknowledge that our human situation is absurd. He thinks we can somehow rejoice in our pointless lives. The irrationally of this philosophy should be obvious to anyone. Accepting the absurdity of life might be humorous, but I do not see how it could possibly be joyful. Maybe Camus would say "Yes it's irrational, but we're irrational beings so let's just accept the contradictory nature of our existence. But does this really solve the problem of living? It seems to me that this is just denying the problem instead of solving it.

    1. We often see atheists trying to claim that we can live meaningfully despite that fact that life actually has no meaning.

      How stupid do you have to be to believe a self-demonstrating contradiction?

  14. There is a strange similarity between Freud's "deal with it" attitude and the Christian message to "take up your cross", despite Freud's atheism.

    The famous Japanese giant robot cartoon "Neon Genesis Evangelion" (of all things) illustrates this. It uses- in a ham-fisted way- both Freudian and Christian imagery. Its unclear how much the writers knew about Christianity, and these elements seem to mostly exist to give the show a unique art-style, but the writers clearly read a book or two about Freud. The show concludes with the main character rejecting the offer of a Gnostic/Kabbalist cult to create a world without material suffering at the expense of individual consciousness-the conceit being that suffering is a product of interpersonal relationships (i.e. society and civilization), and something we must endure if were are to live in the real world.

    So a story with a Freudian message and some Christian imagery tacked on because it looks cool and foreign to a Japanese audience ends up working perfectly well as a Christian story. As a Christian work, it lacks only the promise of the beatific vision absent in Freud.

    (As an aside, despite the fairly simple explanation of the show offered here, which should be apparent to anyone with cursory knowledge of Freud, Evangelion continues to baffle anime fans, who alternatively argue that it is either meaningless pretension or too esoteric and "deep" for any viewer to grasp without consulting the writers directly.)

    1. to create a world without material suffering at the expense of individual consciousness-the conceit being that suffering is a product of interpersonal relationships (i.e. society and civilization), and something we must endure if were are to live in the real world.

      "Life is hard because I'm so shy!" is a pathetic moral of a story.

  15. Mr. Feser, I'd like to let you know of this institute:

  16. They say that even though life has no objective purpose, we can somehow invent purpose ourselves. But this no more rational than saying that even though a perpetual motion machine is impossible, I'm going to build one anyway. If purpose cannot exist in nature, then you will not be able to create it. All you can do is engage in self-deception and try to deny that what you are attempting is actually impossible.

  17. "But he nevertheless resisted psychological reductionism in the metaphysical sense of supposing that descriptions at the psychological level could be reduced to, or eliminated in favor of, descriptions at the physiological level. "

    Isn't the first "psychological level" means instead "metaphysical level"?

  18. Hi Edward

    Thank you for your illuminating insights. I wonder if you have tackled Schopenhauer's "The World as Will and Idea", which Freud (and Nietzsche et al) were heavily influenced by and may have borrowed a few ideas from. I would be interested to see what you make of his position, which is roughly a marriage of Plato and Kant, and whether or not it is in fact atheistic or indeed theistic, as I have come to believe, despite the assertions of the later Schopenhauer. In his masterwork, he dismisses as speculative theology any attempt at knowing the Subject, yet often qualifies his metaphysical monism, that the World is Will-to-Life as thing-in-itself, with the curious addendum, that this is so, only "for us".

    Although interest in this great philosopher has unjustly waned (after he was initially unjustly ignored for Hegel) then for no other reason he should be read for giving a succinct demonstration of the validity of the principle of sufficient reason and its fourfold grounds, without which, no understanding of the world is truly comprehensible. This is already a remarkable achievement, but as with theism generally, only leads to certain, limited, core of virtues that such a world implies (e.g. Daoism, Stoicism, Brahmanism, Christian asceticism etc.). However, I've come to the view that Schopenhauer's system is not at all inconsistent with nor precludes the Christian account of man, the universe or the Christian God, particularly in light of the recent work of René Girard, whose anthropological analysis of human origins allows one to understand that Schopenhauer's vision of the world, as Will, is but the clearest the lens upon the world that man may have of it, AFTER the Fall, that is to say, where man's insight into the being of the world is fundamentally distorted by his "Fall", governed as he is by what may be called the Heraclitean Logos, which leaves man with the vision of a world in perpetual strife with itself, from which one, having attained precisely this understanding, ought to turn away in renunciation. The "for us" that Schopenhauer curiously repeats without investigating, is room enough to ask, like Moses at Sinai, "what is our name"?

    1. I should have added that I'd also be interested in your thoughts on any consonance between Schopenhauer's treatment of the principle of sufficient reason in both his doctoral dissertation and his chef d'oeuvre and with the "knowledge of good and evil" described in the Fall of Man which, thanks to Girard's work on the scapegoat-murder hypothesis of the origin of humanity, we may understand as having a real anthropological significance vis-a-vis the "founding logos" of human thought, being the first sign, born over the salvific body of the immolated victim, thereby re-establishing the principle of difference.